For fans of Brutalism, the Barbican’s architecture is a fixation in itself, so I thought that was the perfect venue for the world premiere of Obsession, the new play by the highly acclaimed Belgian director Ivo van Hove.
A stage adaptation of Visconti’s first feature film Obsession (1943) – itself inspired by the 1934 James Cain crime novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) – is in a way quite a controversial choice for van Hove. As a matter of fact Visconti’s Obsession has been often regarded as the opera prima of the incoming Italian neo-realism movement, but in van Hove’s adaptation there is nothing left of the original’s atmosphere of social misery; so clearly what allured the Belgian director was the obsession angle, the fixated passion that consumes the two characters, and the impossibility to sustain it without leading to their destruction.
Gino is a magnetic and feline drifter played by an intense joy-for-the-eyes Jude Law, who wanders into an isolated cafè and encounters its owner, Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat), and his much younger, frustrated wife Hanna (Halina Reijn). Fatally attracted, Gino and Hanna engage in an affair whilst plotting to murder her husband; but the guilt haunts Gino, and their unbearable passion drags them into a fatally destructive spiral, in perfect line with any Greek tragedy.
The drama appears more sexually charged than in the original film, and the two lead actors go at it with a passion that will ultimately destroy their idealistic romance. Further changes occur in the subplot, in which Gino tries to escape his spiral affair with Hannah and encounters Johnny (Robert de Hoog), which has a more homoerotic connotation compared to Visconti’s original. Law is muscular, fickle, and effective at conveying the coveted guilt that follows the murder; in contrast, Reijn starts with the right air of boredom and anguished solitude, but is quickly re-animated by the sudden appearance of the charming stranger, later looking focused and determined to re-order her new widow's life expanding the business with her partner-in-crime, reminiscent of a modern version of Macbeth.
It was my first Ivo van Hove production but, by scrapping away all Visconti’s 'made in Italy' atmospheric elements, I immediately felt it had the very distinctive look and sound of an auteur. From start, he placed van Aschat and Reijn in a theatre venue, which itself contributes to the construction of a contemporary non-space.
The stage is stark, kept at bare minimum; septic, its contours are linear, uninterrupted apart from some cut geometric volumes and Perspex windowed doors, all softly back lit. The visual element on stage that metaphorically crashes the characters is a sinister suspended combustion engine that unsettles throughout the play, with its rumbling noise, smoke, and spewing of blood-like oil. Aside from this, an automated accordion supplies recurring mood motifs, and a discretely-placed treadmill emphasises the meaningless attempt of the characters to escape, but eventually running nowhere. The whole glorious design set is the successful result of a long term collaboration between van Hove and the highly talented Jan Versweyveld and it is one of the play’s biggest strength.
Although there is no addition to the stage – apart from Reijn trashing the floor with bin-load while madly singing a French torch song – there is a dynamic soundscape of choral and opera pieces, rhythmic notes, and outdoor Foley of crickets and cats, in which the characters’ fates unfold, running towards an inevitable climax of death. The rich soundscape also accounts for some issues about the adaptation of dialogues: flat pack and slow they slightly hamper the conversation pace but when everybody is silent, they allow you to appreciate fully the perfectly stylish aesthetic look of the set as well as Jude Law's physique du rôle.
As Van Hove’s fourth Visconti production, Obsession deploys a highly talented company of Dutch and British actors, led by Law, who all give convincing, solid acting, supported by a compelling visual element that keeps the audience always engaged. But when the climax comes, with its overpowering music and its cinematic seascapes rising from the stage floor, all of a sudden the viewer feels derailed into a deep romantic territory, losing the gripping noir texture of the drama. In the end van Hove's version of Obsession appears well executed and will still leave you longing for the Belgian director's next project, but it lacks that original power of Visconti's movie, where passion arises out of a sordid and desolated social environment.