Obsession, The Barbican

Obsession is the fourth Visconti film that acclaimed director Ivo van Hove has adapted for the theatre.  It is perhaps one time too many. 

Based on Visconti’s 1943 film Ossessione – something van Hove hasn’t watched for 30 years – the play follows the consequences of a doomed, impassioned affair between Gino (Jude Law) and Hannah (Halina Reijn).  Gino, a handsome drifter, wanders into a bar where he falls instantly and aggressively in love with Hannah, the young wife of the bar’s owner, who feels trapped in her life with older, patronising husband Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat).  The chemistry is – in the script at least – overwhelming; ‘you’re built like a stallion’ says Hannah and within minutes, Joseph safely off fishing, they are consumed by passion.  After a failed attempt to run away together, strangely symbolised by running on a sunken treadmill in this production, the couple murder Joseph in a ‘car accident’.  Happiness is short lived, however, as tensions between Gino’s desire for the freedom of the road and Hannah’s material wishes for her business rise.  The culmination is dramatic and tragic – or so the theory goes.

The climax is, however, far from either dramatic or tragic – it is a veritable relief that the hour and 50 minutes of this dull, uninspired performance is over. 

Whilst Law tried his best to be brooding, and certainly succeeded in being handsome, his delivery was flat.  It was hard to see him as anything other than Jude Law – there was more undulation in his sculpted abs than his tone of voice – and he lacked the leadership to glue the production together.  Sparks failed to fly between him and Hannah, making the premise of obsessive love wholly unconvincing and rendering the plot somewhat redundant. 

Not only was the acting 2D, but the staging was bland and unimaginative, divided into three discrete sections – the grey hotel bar, the car and the bath – all of which were swallowed by the vast Barbican stage. The set was essentially unchanging throughout and didn’t give any sense of place or time, with the audience having to work hard to imagine the claustrophobic hotel and even the car crash, despite the thrashing around in buckets of treacle-like oil. 

Many of the conceits that worked so well in Hedda Gabler fell flat in this production; where Hedda’s wild flinging of flowers across the stage was animalistic and powerful, Hannah’s chucking of rubbish was simply cringeworthy.  But whilst van Hove seemed tired of innovating in some respects, he tried to compensate with some truly bizarre editions.  Seemingly random pieces of music, from Carmen to Iggy Pop, belted out and a projection of Jude Law running Baywatch style, unashamedly and with great sincerity, caused the person sitting next to me to laugh out loud – the one visible reaction to the whole production.

It’s hard to judge whether it was the script, the acting or the production which caused this latest venture of van Hove’s to be such a disaster.  When the actors took their bows,  they seemed bored and slightly embarrassed – a feeling that in my opinion perfectly reflected that of the audience.    



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