Sandy Pritchard-Gordon

Sandy Pritchard-Gordon
Theatre Blog

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Obsession at The Barbican

Following Ivo van Hove’s brilliant productions of A View From The Bridge and Hedda Gabler, his latest offering starring Jude Law and members of the Belgian’s Toneelgroep Company, seemed like a no brainer.  Conceived and directed by van Hove, in an English Language version by Simon Stephens, Obsession is based on Luchino Visconti’s 1943 movie of the same name, which, in turn, was based on the novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.

It centres around Gino (Jude Law), a handsome drifter, who on meeting Hanna (Halina Reijn) for the first time falls head over heels in love/lust or perhaps both.  The only problem is that she is unhappily married to Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) a not altogether pleasant older man.  She, too, is obsessed with Gino, although her idea of the perfect life is very much at odds with her free spirited lover.  Needless to say, this all-consuming love affair ends in tragedy for all concerned.

We are warned of scenes of a sexual nature and, sure enough, when the couple indulge in a spot of heaving rumpy pumpy, we are privy to a close-up of the action via large video screens.  No need for a warning, though, for it is tastefully, if rather clinically done; so carefully choreographed that any emotion is sadly lacking.  Even the almost constant musical score, making up for the lack of dialogue, fails to produce any atmosphere.
Ivo van Hove and his designer, Jan Versweyveld, have stripped the whole production down so that it is far removed from reality.  A car engine suspended from the ceiling suggests the garage attached to where Joseph and Hanna live and the vast Barbican stage contains nothing else apart from a water tank, wooden bar and perspex windowed doors.  Oh and this excuse for a car, also has another purpose, in that black sump oil pours from its bowels during the bloody murder scene.  Dripping in this treacly mess, the couple strip off and wash themselves in the water tank; silently. When the couple run away together, they do so via a treadmill, which elicited giggles from some of the audience on the night I went.   

Obsession, the film, was shot in Italy’s long, winding roads and countryside, but there is no sense of place in this adaptation, the only reference to Italy being snatches of the Italian Opera, La Traviata.  I have to say, there is also no sense of real passion.  Whereas van Hove’s A View From the Bridge and Hedda Gabler worked so well under his non-realistic approach, Obsession fails.  It is sterile and cold and I for one was completely uninvolved.
Part of the problem is the theatre itself.  The Barbican, with it’s huge stage is rather sterile, even more so when it is almost completely bare.  Since watching the play, I have seen the South Bank Show covering the rehearsal period, interviews with Law and van Hove and the play’s first foray onto the stage.  This, for me, was so much more involving and I wonder how much better the production would have been in a smaller space, like say the Donmar.

At least the strapping, sexy and soulful Jude Law shines, even though the rest of the company hardly glimmer. He also manages to inject some feeling into the sparse rather flat dialogue.  But, unfortunately, even he looks rather lost in this huge barren space.  I wonder if he was as pleased as me when the 1 hour, 50 minutes were up?

Obviously I won’t give up on Ivo van Hove.  A director who is so radically different and believes that realism in the theatre is a misnomer is bound to have his off moments.  But from his take on Arthur Miller’s play being one of the best productions of 2014, this one could possibly be one the worst of 2017.

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