Omnipresent in London this season, Ivo van Hove has emerged as one of contemporary western theatre’s most divisive figures. I found his recent Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre lazy and incoherent (others vehemently disagreed), but last month’s revival of the Roman Tragedies at the Barbican did deserve much of the critical attention it has received: the production digs deep in its six-hour exploration of three Shakespeare plays, making fresh discoveries, rather than traipsing across the text like a belligerent, unintelligible house painter.
Like many of Donald Trump’s supporters (if only in this one way), van Hove’s most devoted apostles continue to think their leader can do no wrong, so I’m interested to hear what the Ivo-heads make of Obsession.
The latest production by van Hove’s company Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Obsession, now playing at the Barbican, isn’t painful, it’s just dull. In place of taking the hatchet to Ibsen, van Hove is only toying with the ponderous script adapted by Jan Peter Gerrits from Luchino Visconti’s 1943 film Ossessione, and presented in an English translation by Simon Stephens, that sounds exactly like it’s been translated from a foreign language.
Ossessione, the story of a wandering car mechanic whose affair with a barkeeper’s wife leads to her husband’s death, has been heralded as a landmark early neorealist film. As that dark tale, part-Macbeth, part-Crime and Punishment but with more sex and more Italian, unfolds, the camera follows the characters as they eat meals in real time or walk slowly down the road, and so forth. Van Hove is far from a neorealist director, even if he shares a grittiness with the films of that style, so the abstract staging (including a fairly silly treadmill used to represent running, and a bizarre sort-of lip-synching number) sometimes clashes with the material.
All the signature van Hovian elements that drove Hedda Gabler audiences either to ecstasy or up a wall are back: another gaping set by Jan Versweyveld (this one metallic and hulking, clearly aiming to evoke the black and white of the film); another distracting soundscape by Eric Sleichim (careening between a very loud ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and endless repetitions of the same few bars from the Verdi Requiem); another performance by Chukwudi Iwuji (fine in Hedda Gabler and trying very hard here to justify his presence in the bite-size parts of the Priest and the Inspector); and van Hove’s two favourite onstage devices: a scene involving sticky liquids that vaguely symbolize blood (engine oil this time around rather than Hedda’s tomato juice) and a big full-stage mess-making (dumping out lots of rubbish bins, a chaotic upgrade from Hedda’s strewn flowers).
For the most part, it’s a beat-by-beat, shot-by-shot adaptation of the film, but the stage version pays little attention to the elements that lend the film its slow-burn suspense and tightly wound tension. Both Joseph’s demise and Gino’s seduction of Hanna happen off-camera, and while that’s partly a product of 1940s censorship, it also contributes to an aura of mystery – we never quite know what’s happened between scenes.
While van Hove is not particularly known for his subtlety (the falsely accused witches even took flight in his production of The Crucible on Broadway), watching Gino and Hanna make stylized, writhing love, or seeing Joseph get crushed by a truck, seems to take those literalizing tendencies too far (Tal Yarden’s voyeuristic video projections don’t help).
Rural Italian culture fuels the fatal engine of Ossessione, but it’s nowhere to be found in the stage version; van Hove announces in the programme that he wanted to de-Italianise the story in order to focus fully on the characters’ overwhelming passion. But much of the film’s momentum comes from the teeming crowds that dance and party but also frequently interrupt the lovers’ fretful scheming.
There’s no sense of place or time in van Hove’s Obsession, and the only people in town are the priest, the inspector, and a prostitute (Aysha Kala, in a part that seems much more significant in the film). Van Hove is also getting into the bad habit, first with Hedda and now with Hanna, of depicting women trapped in loveless marriages while stripping them of their cultural contexts that explain, in part, why these women feel so helpless. It’s society, not just neuroses, that seals Hedda’s and Hanna’s fates.
As for the film star who headlines this production, Jude Law swaggers and flexes gamely, but he seems uncomfortable with Gino’s lack of self-awareness. Gino acts by instinct, constantly torn between his desire for Hanna and his desire to stay on the move, but Law always appears to be on the edge of a moment of reflection that Gino isn’t ever supposed to have.
There’s not much sense of genuine passion between Law and his co-star Halina Reijn, either, and she’s best in her scenes with the ill-fated Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat, giving the play’s most compelling performance) – despite Joseph’s boorish behavior towards his wife, she continues to flirt with him coyly as if by force of habit and out of a sort of hopeless desperation. A major plot change from the film regarding Hanna’s threat to out Gino to the police also serves to flatten the couple’s psychologies, scaling them down from unpredictable humans to melodramatic archetypes.
Surprise of surprises, a number of audience members responded to the particularly unclear closing scene with a standing ovation.
Obsession is playing at the Barbican Centre until 20 May.