Barbican Theatre, London – until 20 May 2017
Ivo van Hove is simply everywhere at present, the wunderkind of international theatre and opera. It’s understandable why he is so much in demand. He has a way of envisioning that is either truly spectacular or passionately intimate, as was the case with his award-winning production of A View from the Bridge for the Young Vic. His production of Hedda Gabler at the National also radically realigned Ibsen’s classic although for some of us it actually diminished rather than enhanced its themes.
Van Hove’s best work, like Robert Lepage, undoubtedly comes from when he is working with his own company, the Amsterdam Toneelgroep and their remarkable band of actors. Obsession, in this English language version by Simon Stephens is a marvellous mixture of scale and intimacy, of resident members of Toneelgroep augmented by Jude Law and the former RSC actor and one of the youngest to play Henry VI, Chukwudi Iwuji.
Based on the controversial Visconti film, Ossessione (1943) which was itself based on the 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain, both Visconti and now van Hove have inevitably added their own personal preoccupations to the original. Visconti’s adaptation became notorious for its neo-realistic setting and its treatment of sex at a time when under Fascist influence, it was subject to the closest scrutiny. Visconti also changed the ending.
Van Hove, it seems, has gone one step further – or in another sense, not quite as far as the original novel where the central protagonist, Gino, found himself wrongfully arrested for a crime he did not commit. Van Hove’s version has Gino not only decisively involved in one murder – that of the husband of the woman, Hanna, he is having an affair with – but also that of Hanna herself. But whatever the narrative changes, Obsession/Ossessione remains a morality tale about the destructive power of passion and its inevitable consequences.
Van Hove’s adaptation, beautifully, tenderly recreated in English by Simon Stephens presents a magnificent sequence of images, from the opening, lingering sound of a harmonica played by Jude Law, framed in a doorway, the epitome of the outsider, the drifter, to the murders themselves produced by a crashing to earth of the chassis innards of a truck, to the turbulent vista of an angry sea before, we come to realise, Gino embarks on an act of redemption.
Despite the violence – and the sex scenes are both passionately enacted on stage and projected as pre-recorded video close-up, double-vision `realism’ in a sense – Jude Law’s Gino and the marvellous Hanna of Halina Reijn play out their doomed love affair with a delicacy that makes both intensely human. Law, as handsome as ever and often bare-chested, is a soft macho-male, both a wanderer and commitment-phobe but a man pricked also by conscience.
Reijn gives us an intense but not calculating woman, rather one who is desperate to escape the frustrations of being married to an elderly man but also the poverty that pushed her into it in the first place. Visconti, the Marxist aristocrat must have understood that dilemma, so much of his early work committed to showing the economic effects on ordinary and poor working people.
Van Hove adds a slight homosexual tinge to one of the subsidiary characters, Johnny – the `artist’ and another `free spirit’ who attempts to seduce Gino away from domestic security into a romantic, itinerant artist’s life.
But there are so many interesting points of departure driven by van Hove at a pace where moments seem suspended in time or characters, be it Gijs Scholten van Aschat’s Joseph, Hanna’s husband bursting into an opera solo or Chukwudi Iwuji’s watchful Priest and Inspector, that make it almost seem as though we were watching a film on the Barbican’s vast stage.
I sometimes worry about van Hove’s approach to his female characters but the meltingly intelligent Halina Reijn thankfully rescues Hanna from any such `femme fatale’ stereotype. Law has never been better. Not just a set of pretty faces. Beautiful work.