Review of Jude Law in Ivo van Hove's Obsession at the Barbican Theatre
Ivo van Hove may certainly be the director of the moment and paired with Hollywood A-lister Jude Law his stage adaptation of Luchino Visconti's 1943 film 'Ossessione', itself an adaptation of 'The Postman Always Rings Twice', makes for big news. It's slow, contemplative and strangely unrewarding and as a vehicle for the stage it overwhelms with expression and atmosphere but doesn't provide enough meat to consistently reward in its new dramatic form.
There's no denying Law is a powerful presence on stage. After testing his Shakespearian metal in Henry V and Hamlet he's more relaxed as the wandering tramp Gino who arrives out of the blue to seduce the restaurant owner's wife Hanna, enticing her into a plot to kill her husband. As you'd expect from van Hove it's expansive in scale yet intricate in its delivery. Working in complete synthesis with his designer Jan Versweyveld the pair share a remarkable knack of using empty expansive space to their advantage yet still focussing the audience's eye on the most minute detail as if guided by a camera lens.
This ultimately works both for and against the production that embraces the neorealism of Visconti's film and utilises numerous stage tricks, including close up camera visuals to enhance the dramatic construction. Those familiar with van Hove's work will recognise a number of tricks, from the scattered rubbish on the stage to the bodies dripping in viscous liquids, to the point where it begins to feel like a greatest hits parade of his previous 'coup de theatres'. A master of visual metaphor I adored the lone self-playing accordion that provides a somewhat hypnotic comfort to Hanna's world that she's desperate to leave behind.
The abstraction from reality frees the narrative, removing specificity of time and place that allows the stage to blend into one cohesive sphere. The slightness of the narrative buckles under this languishing pace and you start to question motives and intention that rarely feel more than surface deep. Gino and Hanna's attraction stems from necessity rather than any animalistic passion and there's something artificial in their release that van Hove probes at from their first meeting. Instead of colliding out of unbridled passion they a drawn together by their emptiness which then offers a hollow relationship that's hard to back.
I found myself consistently impressed by Eric Sleichim's composition and sound design which reverberates through the Barbican space continually matching the tone and style and enhancing the inescapable filmic visual. If only the text enhanced the visual but instead it's bogged down in cliché and delivered so flatly that I wished it had been told in silence. Deeply underwhelming and non-theatrical it's a script that would be more successful on film but sketches details too finely to really expand into the story or offer necessary character development.
Law is muscular, attractive and suitably aggressive exceeding at this overly realistic style that draws you in to him rather than shut you out. He seems to work against the pretentiousness of some of the staging which helps you connect to the piece on an emotional level and he's well matched with Halina Reijn's fiercely conflicted Hanna who is at her most powerful when still and quietly shaking. Their passion is convincing in smaller moments but as a whole piece it feels somewhat effortful with a cool distance that blocks you from feeling fully engaged with the tragic narrative. A victim of style over substance? Almost. Van Hove is fearless in his delivery and he continues to push boundaries and expectations, especially within the world of realism and the visual possibilities of total theatre. Whilst this may not be his most engaging work it offers a fine performance by Law in an otherwise too mannered and empty emotional void.
What the Press Said...
"Law and Halina Reijn impress in Ivo van Hove’s stylish stage version of Visconti’s 1942 film but the production glosses over the original’s harsh story."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"You don’t have to be fully obsessed with Law to enjoy this wayward, by turns gripping, gritty and grating, affair but it sure helps."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"The atmosphere is cold and disengaged, and the script, a version by Simon Stephens of Jan Peter Gerrits’s Dutch adaptation, is trite and mired in cliché."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"There is very little sense of potent sexuality. I’m not sure the feeling of abstraction – that we could be anywhere works for piece that is so sweatily soaked in realism."
Paul Taylor for The Independent