Tag Archives: Chukwudi Iwuji

Obsession – The Barbican

Obsession - The Barbican

We’re in an age of the super-star theatre director, where their name alone will not only sell plenty of tickets – even before you factor in any well-known actors – but is also a hallmark of style. There have always been famous directors of course but with a high turnover of shows in London’s big venues, the existence of dedicated companies with a lead director who work together repeatedly is only now coming back into fashion. Kenneth Branagh’s 10-month residence at the Garrick was a significant success, while Robert Icke at The Almeida and Jamie Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios work repeatedly with the same cast and crew, forming an unofficial company of sorts.

Perhaps the biggest name in London theatre right now is Ivo van Hove whose Toneelgroep Amsterdam company has regular seasons at the Barbican, while van Hove wetted the appetite of London theatre goers with his extraordinary interpretations of A View From the Bridge and this year’s Hedda Gabler at The National Theatre working primarily with British actors. It was only a matter of time then before his European and British interests would meet, and the result is Obsession which unites Toneelgroep with three British actors including Jude Law.

As a director, van Hove is renowned for the physical sparsity of his staging which allows the emotional life of the characters to emerge uncluttered. For an audience, this approach is often uncomfortable but entirely consuming, watching helplessly as stories hurtle to unstoppable conclusions, while the tragic flaws of the central character are writ large. With nothing to distract you, van Hove turns characters inside out so we can see what drives them, and ultimately what destroys them – it’s a powerful technique that is always emotionally shocking but transforms well-worn plays into something fresh, relevant and timeless.

Obsession has quite vast cultural roots and van Hove’s new production is based on the 1943 film (Ossessione) by Luchino Visconti, which was itself based on James M Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, a title you may recognise from two subsequent American films of the same name, one with Lana Turner in 1946 and another with Jack Nicholson in 1981. This version is firmly based on and credits the Italian interpretation but follows the same central story: Former solider and now drifter Gino arrives at the roadside bar owned by Joseph and his much younger wife Hanna. Initially suspicious, Joseph chases Gino away but an instant attraction to Hanna makes him linger. Within days he’s indispensable to them both, but Hanna wants out of her marriage and the adulterous lovers take a murderous path. But will it bring the right kind of freedom to either of them?

The first thing you’ll notice about van Hove’s production is the cavernous space on stage filled with only a few pieces of scenery. Designed by regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld, this modern set has only a bar, bath, back window and door, and a giant engine representing the truck Joseph is trying to fix. The Barbican stage is already sizeable, but the emptiness of it gives it a giant garage-like feel entirely devoid of emotion, and not the warm, loving home Hanna desires. And Jan Peter Gerrits, who has adapted the film, wastes no time in introducing Gino and getting the lovers together within minutes of the play starting. With only 1hr 45 minutes and no interval, the writing is slick and spare, delivering only what we need to understand the plot and what characters feel at any given moment.

For anyone who has waited to see Jude Law play the harmonica then this is the play for you, heralding Gino’s arrival, a symbol of his freedom and wanderer status. His lust for Hanna is instantly clear and the two circle each other briefly before succumbing to their passionate connection. But this is only the start of the story for Gino, and Law creates a complicated figure, drawn to the security and camaraderie of fellow veteran Joseph, but unable to contain his overbearing feelings for Hanna. The power struggle between them becomes hugely significant in the rest of the play, and while their desire is mutual, control is something that Hanna seems to gain as Gino loses.

Most interesting is the second half of the performance in which Law gets to explore the consequences of their actions, and it is here that he unpacks ideas of guilt and regret which take the audience deeper into his mind. His former army service make him dangerous and several violent eruptions are sudden and shocking, adding an edge to his interactions with Hanna, but Law makes it clear this is all part of his sense of containment – caused by his affair with Hanna – that make him unable to flee from his actions or himself.

Like van Hove’s recent Hedda Gabler, Gino longs for the freedom of the life he knew before, but is equally unable to walk away despite several attempts. His chance meeting with fellow drifter Johnny offers companionship and chance to join the navy, while a need to confess his actions much later in the play to dancer Anita give him a freedom from the burden of carrying his remorse which Law uses skilfully to show us that the extent of Gino’s suffocation is both physical and emotional. There is a slightly heightened style to the production which takes some getting used to, but Law fits seamlessly into the existing Toneelgroep Amsterdam company, holding his own but never allowing his movie star status to pull focus, which is no easy task and admirably achieved.

His counterpart Halina Reijn as Hanna is the stronger part of the couple and more easily able to accept her actions, seemingly without remorse. Driven entirely by her passion for Gino, something she fights hard for and fervently clings to, Hanna is as enthusiastic an adulteress as she is cold and calculating in the manipulation of the men around her. What saves her from being a classic femme fatale is the lack of self-awareness that Reijn gives her, and while she does terrible things, they are almost guileless and driven solely by love rather than money or power.

Yet Hanna has a touch of Lady Macbeth about her, able to better control her public face than Gino who finds it harder to reconcile their actions. Reijn’s Hanna sees a clear line from wanting something and taking it to enjoying the spoils. To her the plan was devised so she and Gino could be happy, and cannot comprehend his moodiness and distance after the fact. She seems more the villainess than Gino perhaps but she feels liberated by their actions while he is imprisoned by them.

As the cuckolded husband Joseph, Gijs Scholten van Aschat is nicely ambiguous, neither entirely likeable or objectionable, leaving just enough room for the audience to pity him, casting doubt on Hanna’s motives. Fine support is given by Chukwudi Iwuji in the dual role of priest and inspector adding the moral and legal perspective on the central relationship, while Robert de Hoog and Aysha Kala have brief roles as drifter Johnny and dancer Anita.

van Hove’s production is almost a continuous stream of consciousness as scenes slide into one another with nothing more than an intake of breath to indicate a change of time, day or even venue. Key decisions or moments are underscored by Tal Yarden’s video projected across the walls, showing the intimacy between Gino and Hanna which helps to counteract the size of the stage, but also reflects the play’s origins in Visconti’s film. Frequently characters try fruitlessly to run away from the bar on a treadmill (which looks a bit ridiculous) but their scared and desperate faces are projected around the stage ensuring in that second the whole room is filled with the characters’ inner life.

Obsession’s slightly heightened reality, reflected in the acting style, may not suit all tastes and there’s something in the central characters that keeps the audience slightly distanced from them – you’re drawn in enough to feel the intensity of their relationship but kept back sufficiently to judge their behaviour as that passion curdles into something more destructive. So, while this is gripping and innovative it doesn’t quite have the power of A View From the Bridge or Hedda Gabler, you leave Obsession with lots to think about but not shaken to the core and needing a lie down.

Similarly, the influence of film and simpler theatre styles is still difficult for those used to the more traditional productions that still dominate the West End, so it will be interesting to see what will certainly be a range of differing reactions to Obsession after tomorrow’s press night. Nonetheless, with official and unofficial theatre companies becoming more prevalent, Ivo van Hove’s attempts to create closer collaboration and integration between British and European theatre approaches is to be welcomed, and his integration of stylised techniques, along with a very decent turn from Law, make Obsession’s tale of a destructive love affair compelling viewing.

Obsession is at the Barbican until 20 May and tickets start at £16 and an NT Live cinema screening is scheduled for 11 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Hedda Gabler – National Theatre

hedda-gabler-national-theatre

“Academics are no fun” according to Hedda Gabler in Patrick Marber’s modern reworking of Ibsen’s famous play, but they are dependable, reliable and safe, so despite years of flirtation and numerous suitors she marries one because it was time. This year we have seen some particularly outstanding female performances; Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea and Billy Piper in Yerma were two of the finest portrayals not just in 2016 but any year, and with a couple of weeks to go Ruth Wilson joins them with her take on the infamous heroine.

Ivo van Hove is one of the few theatre directors who is as well-known as his productions. Much like Robert Icke, Carrie Cracknell and Jamie Lloyd, his style is distinctive, recognisable and notably innovative – incidentally this production of Hedda is sharing the Lyttelton stage with Icke’s astonishing version of The Red Barn (which earned my first five star professional review) staring Mark Strong who’s last stage appearance was coincidentally in van Hove’s game-changing A View From the Bridge. To Hedda Gabler, van Hove brings his ability to deconstruct classic plays and sweep away preconceptions to create slicing visions of quite modern people engaged in battles against their own destruction.

Hedda Gabler is a much admired local society beauty who surprises the town by marrying quiet up-and-coming academic Tesman. The play opens as the couple return home from a 6 month honeymoon and research trip to the house Hedda once claimed she always wanted and to face the men she once dallied with including Judge Brack who continues to visit in the hope of an opportunity.  As Hedda begins to suffocate, rival academic Lovborg returns to town with his lover Mrs Elvsted, casting doubt on Tesman’s academic future, and when Hedda decides to alleviate her boredom by meddling with the relationships around her, she brings only destruction.

van Hove’s production is strikingly modern from the off, and instantly sets it apart from earlier period-set versions – including Sheridan Smith’s excellent take at the Old Vic in 2012. We’re used to seeing Ibsen in claustrophobic rooms overstuffed with furniture that mimics the oppression of his characters, but here van Hove instead introduces a virtually bare city apartment, designed by Jan Versweyveld, suggesting both the current poverty of the newlyweds unable to furnish it to the standards Hedda expected, and reiterating the idea that it is the moral and emotional lives of the characters that oppresses them not their décor. They would be equally tormented in any room and it is credit to van Hove and particularly to Wilson that they manage to fill the cavernous Lyttleton stage with Hedda’s interior life.

Occasionally referred to as the female Hamlet, this version departs somewhat from the idea of inevitable doom and instead slowly charts the descent of a smart woman, used to controlling and toying with those around her who stubbornly refuses to help herself when several opportunities for escape present themselves. She is more than merely a bird in a cage, but someone who has built that cage for herself and (almost morally) refuses to go back on her word, accepting the consequences. So, the play’s conclusion comes not from certainty but after a moment of weakness is politically outmanoeuvred and backed into a corner by fear of the kind of public scandal which has kept her marriage intact.

Wilson’s Hedda is complex and fascinating, managing to tread the line between alluring and repellent, victim of circumstance and active agent in events. During the first half we see her frustration build and snap; she’s barely civil to her husband and his aunt, rapidly wheedles the truth with faux friendship from Mrs Elvsted and relishes the moments of flirtation with Lovborg and Brack. Coming back from a dull honeymoon, Wilson shows Hedda slowly resuming her former, rather vicious and arrogant, character and belief in her power over others, so at the interval she feels emboldened by the havoc she has unleashed.

In the second half of the evening we see just how wrong she has been, so here Wilson is able to display Hedda’s delusion and vulnerability – particularly as a supposedly strong woman that never leaves that empty house. Her belief in her irresistibility comes crashing down as both her liaisons prove, in her words, “vulgar” and still fails to realise that her husband is the only man who genuinely loved her unconditionally. Meanwhile the small victory she claims in the first half over Lovborg and Mrs Elvsted is brutally revisited upon her and, on stage throughout, Wilson conveys every nuance of Hedda’s suffering and loss of spirit as fate turns against her. It is an excellent and meaningful performance that doesn’t try to make you like her, but compels you to watch her nonetheless.

Wilson is given excellent support by the rest of the cast, particularly Rafe Spall as Brack. Often portrayed as a bearded old man, this young Judge is slick, confidence and right out of some sinister gangster movie. Spall is all charm and determination as he oils is way around Hedda in the early scenes, but not put off by her refusals to betray her marriage, he is also a predator and waits for the perfect opportunity to bite. The chemistry with Wilson crackles as they flirt dangerously with one another, which is a high point of the show.

Likewise there is considerable chemistry with Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg, a man driven by the discovery of his own genius and the fruition of his ideas. Along with Mrs Elvsted – an occasionally stilted but felt Sinead Matthews – they are the counterpoint to Hedda and Tesman’s relationship, one built on mutual understanding, support and respect which Hedda decides to destroy. Poldark fans will recognise Kyle Soller’s Tesman, a character not that dissimilar to Francis who also married a women who didn’t love him, but here Soller retains his natural American accent which does stand out a bit, especially as the narrative has all the characters originating in the same town. Nonetheless, Tesman is given a parallel life of his own driven by academia and the strong bonds with his aunts while being in thrall to Heddar which Soller conveys really well.

Throughout van Hove creates drama and tension while Marber cleverly plays with metaphors of emptiness and dawning light. The bare apartment and repeated references to whether Hedda is pregnant or not imply an emptiness inside her that cannot be filled, and here An D’Huys costumes puts Hedda initially in a visible silk slip shrouded in a black dressing gown suggesting her suppressed sexuality, but later in the play the dressing gown is removed as the real Hedda emerges – as slippery and thin as her costume. Linked to this is the use of sunlight in the room which Hedda initially reacts badly to and tries to shade, but at the start of part two as her real self emerges the stage is bathed in a bronze sunrise as she flirts heatedly with Brack, and then as events close in around her, she becomes entirely entombed in a dark and falsely lit world.

The National Theatre has hit a purple patch and this version of Hedda Gabler rounds off a fantastic year of shows that, after a lengthy dry spell, has ensured its back at the top of its game. The attraction of visionary directors like Cracknell, Icke and van Hove has given momentum to its programme of new and classic productions that are not just good quality but also innovative and appealing for new audiences. Marber’s translation of Hedda Gabler feels fresh and dangerous, and while the strange decision to use occasional music to underscore Hedda’s depression jars – and is something Wilson manages perfectly well on her own – this memorable production adds one final flourish to a year of great female performances.

Hedda Gabler is at the National Theatre until 21 March 2017. Tickets start at £15 and the show is part of the Friday Rush scheme offering tickets to sold out productions for the following week at £20 –  1pm every Friday. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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