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