Roman Tragedies, Jan Versweyveld uses the size of the Barbican stage to leave vast empty spaces for Obsession, which takes place in a bar - one that apparently does have some customers, we just don't get to see them. Instead Gino (Jude Law,) a drifter, wanders in playing the harmonica and looking for something to eat, which he may or may not be able to pay for. He's a mechanic and stays to do a few jobs around the place in exchange for his room and board, but the real reason he's sticking around is because he's fallen instantly in lust with the barmaid Hanna (Halina Reijn,) and the second her much older husband Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) is gone they start an affair.
As the title suggests, they become obsessed with each other to the point of
murdering Joseph in a faked car accident, but as soon as a life together seems to be
a possibility Gino begins to itch for change again.
Now that van Hove's profile is international a lot of big names have found out about
him and want to work with him - London's getting Bryan Cranston and the
just-announced Cate "I can't spell Kate Blanket" Blanchett in the next year - and
first up is Law, who's buffed up again for the role (although not quite up to
ridiculous Anna Christie levels this time,) making the physical very much the centre
of this relationship. And that's needed because this is a relationship looked at
quite coldly and clinically. There's not a huge amount of emotional depth to the
characters but I don't always need that if there's other ideas on show, and one
thing I found clear about the story was that the two had got into their murderous
relationship with different ideas: Hanna thought she was finding someone she liked
more to replace her unpleasant husband, but Gino will always be drawn to new places,
and she was just another new, temporary fixation for him - they've not been together
long before his eye roves to a chorus girl, Anita (Aysha Kala.)
Elsewhere though Obsession is kept a lot vaguer - the expressionistic set
gives no suggestion of time or place, and in fact the passing of time is kept very
ambiguous as the scenes flow gently into each other, only references in the script
telling us how much time has passed. I don't read reviews before seeing a show but
it's hard to miss that the critics' star ratings have been cooler for this than for
most van Hove shows; they always seem to praise how much clarity he brings to
familiar texts and maybe that's why this one turned them off - van Hove deliberately
obfuscates the story here, leaving the audience to fill in a lot of gaps such as
whether Gino actually had a sexual relationship with Robert de Hoog 's gay drifter
Johnny (the gay subplot is apparently why the original film was banned and all but
one copy destroyed.)
This undoubtedly isn't the director's best work and there's a lot to pick holes in:
The dispassionate performance style means that in the sole instance of cast doubling
Chukwudi Iwuji doesn't get to differentiate much between his priest and policeman,
while a couple of touches take us into into the absurd: Law running on a treadmill
to show him trying to escape this life borders on the unintentionally comic, while
Reijn lip-syncing for her life while strewing rubbish around the stage tips right
over into it; these were also the instances when I felt the show could have been any
generic piece of European theatre.
But for all its flaws I didn't dislike Obsession, and certainly preferred it
to van Hove's Antigone of a couple of years ago. There's a lot of striking images,
including a truck represented by an engine suspended from the flies, spewing
oil-as-blood in the death scene in a way that reminded me of the Carmen Disruption
bull (this also has a text by Simon Stephens,) with Law and Reijn then going on to
wash it off in a scene that nods to Macbeth. Obsession might be
frustrating but I never found it dull.
Obsession by Luchino Visconti, adapted by Jan Peter Gerrits in an English version by
Simon Stephens, is booking until the 20th of May at the Barbican theatre; then
continuing on tour to Vienna, Amsterdam and Luxembourg.
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld.