Monday 8 May 2017

Obsession at the Barbican, or, Unengaging and Self-Indulgent

Note: This is a belated review of the matinee on Saturday 29th April 2017.

This was, I think, my third Ivo van Hove directed show. I remain very unconvinced of his alleged brilliance as a director. This isn't as annoying as his Shakespeare mash up Kings of War but it is slow, dull and gimmicky.

The show is, apparently, based on a film by Luchino Visconti. Not having seen the film, I have no idea how closely the scripts compare but if they are very similar I can only assume that the film being in Italian masked the cliched nature of the dialogue. Certainly the text confers few plaudits on either adaptor Jan Peter Gerrits or English translator Simon Stephens. The story is a familiar love triangle – woman married to older man falls for passing younger heart throb who eventually murders husband, is consumed by guilt and everything ends unhappily. To make this material work you need persistent high tension between the characters and a sense of pace driving everybody towards the successive disasters. For reasons that were never clear to me, van Hove moves things forward at the speed of a snail, leaving me longing to shout at the ensemble to get on with it. Minimal tension is created at any point.

The set, by Jan Versweyveld does not help either. In a show where the focus ought to be tightly on our emotionally trapped triangle, Versweyveld completely opens up the big wide Barbican stage leaving the performers marooned in too empty space. There's very little sense of place to these bare boards – an extremely vague suggestion of a bar at the far left, and corridor which the soundscape attempts to convince is a street beyond the door at the back. The only concrete items are an engine which unconvincingly on two occasions is supposed to make one believe that characters are in a car crash – the first one looked more like mud wrestling to me and was one of the poorest on stage deaths I've seen for some time. This being van Hove he has to make use of film, though at least the cameramen aren't wandering distractingly about all the time as they did in Kings of War. Here on a couple of occasions close ups of the lovers are projected across a multitude of screens – it's not as annoying as the use of similar technology was in the Shakespeare, but it's essentially ineffective. There's an accordian on a plinth which occasionally is mechanically played, I could see no reason at all why this needed to be visible. In a repeat of the flowers being flung about the place in van Hove's recent unconvincing Hedda Gabler at the National, at one point enormous bins of rubbish are thrown everywhere. Oh, and there's the section of travelator on which, periodically, Gino (Jude Law) and Hanna (Halina Reijn) are seen running – they are supposed to be in flight, but look more like they're engaged in part of a training montage from a different film altogether.

Had van Hove been able to create effective tension in his direction of the principals, this ineffective setting might have mattered less – but there is little of that either. There are also one or two very annoying over-obvious moments – in particular when van Hove has Hanna hacking at meat with a knife just in case we've missed that she's fantasising about killing her husband.

The use of nudity, some of which particularly incensed my companion, is also worth mentioning. In a bathing scene it is conspicuous that only Hanna is stripped naked (bar a g-string) while the men keep their trousers on. A subsequent flashing by another female cast member seems similarly gratuitous and again it stands out that it's the woman alone who is exposed.

Also worth mentioning is the soundscape, which seems to have been conceived by van Hove as well (clearly a man who thinks he's a master of a number of fields). In the early scenes he makes persistent use of Georgio Germont's great aria from Verdi's La Traviata. The fit did not convince me. Okay, one can just about see a germ of a connection between Germont's cry “God led me here!” and Gino arriving at Hanna/Joseph's house. But the trouble is that Germont's aria is all about the relationship between himself and his son Alfredo and leading to the attempt to persuade him to return to the family in Provence – clearly van Hove is convinced there are significant parallels between the two set ups but he did not convince me. Elsewhere characters break into full throated song at bizarre moments. As with much else in this show I found it laboured and unconvincing.

None of the performers in this show transcend its limitations. I admired Jude Law in the Donmar's Anna Christie some years back. Here there's a woodenness which doesn't convince. Halina Reijn fails to convey the depths of emotion the script is trying to find. The supporting players are given little to do.

This continues at the Barbican until late May and then, presumably on the strength of van Hove's overblown reputation, travels to the Wiener Festwochen, the Holland Festival and Luxembourg. Should we have readers in those other lands, I can only advise them to avoid it. At one hour and fifty minutes without an interval this makes for a long, dull afternoon.

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