‘Better late than never’, as some may say or in my case, better to find out for yourself than depend on two-star reviews. The time came to see Ivo van Hove‘s production of Obsession with its lead protagonist performed by film and stage actor Jude Law, and one would think that given Hove’s international reputation and Law’s virtuoso acting the show would be a big hit, yet instead this is perhaps one production that meets a degree of anti-climax.
At the main stage of the Barbican Centre, theatrical technicalities and marvellous acting are worth the bite, yet the writing is basic, dry and stale. Yet, what creative device or person(s) do we blame for the production’s flaws?
Inspired by Luchino Visconti’s 1943 film Ossessione, as part of one of three Toneelgroep Amsterdam productions to be performed at the Barbican this year, English playwright Simon Stephens rewrites Jan Peter Gerrits adaptation here, yet something feels lost in translation. Is it the Italian passion or the Dutch theatrical tricks? Either way, there’s absolutely nothing to love about the script or dialogue. You’ve been warned.
Jude Law’s character, Gino, has no ties and drifts into Hanna (Halina Reijn) and Joseph’s (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) diner as a casual customer. Immediately Gino and Hanna are bewitched by one another, giving each other a steamy, hot stare. They fall into a secret affair behind Joseph’s back despite his generous invitation to Gino to live and stay with them, as their handymen.
There’s nudity, intimate sex scenes and a half-naked, oil-dripped Jude Law which may please some, yet these elements are not the unique selling points of the performance. Rather, it is the much-anticipated murdering and undercurrent scheming that is more alarming. There in the middle of the unnecessarily huge stage space, a car engine becomes the source that powers Joseph and Gino connection. Joseph’s car is broken, Gino has the solution to fix it and in doing so plots with Hanna to kill him.
It isn’t the first time we see liquid paint or messy splatter on Ivo van Hove’s staging. Just like his five-star production of A View from the Bridge with Mark Strong and the piping red gunge, it’s the liquid black oil which is the symbol of death here.
Another staple is the Belgium director’s enthusiasm for opera and classical music. Numerous references to choral singing, including La Traviata, Carmen and Les pêcheurs de perles, may give the game away to aficionados, but this could be viewed as a possible failing. As ambient and pleasant these arias and score-parts may appeal to the scenes they are in, they seem to be treated as throw-away sound bites which veer on pretentious and theatre avant-garde. One wonders what the play would be like with just the automated accordion and jovial French singing from Halina Reijn.
There are also very large panels for video displays to compensate for the unused stage space, such as skin-to-skin contact between Law and Reijn in their most intimate scenes and intense facial footage of their first attempt to run away together. Yet, as oppose to running across the large space, Hove has them running on a wooden treadmill, which may seem awkward at first, yet once you realise how stifled Gino’s character feels, you begin to believe this might have been a deliberate technical device. Law effectively depicts Gino as physically and mentally stuck in one place, no longer the casual drifter he was before he entered the diner.
All cast members including Robert de Hoog, Chukwudi Iwuji, Aysha Kala and Gijs Scholten van Aschat are convincing enough, yet the words that come out of the mouths are unimaginative and empty, and that’s not their fault. There are some gripping, thrilling and amusing moments, but it is a production that never seems to take flight.
There was nothing to take away from Obsession, but only that it acts as a reminder of how important script writing must be for any theatrical piece. For sure, this production will have people paying tickets to see it, for Jude Law and Ivo van Hove, but even a world-class actor can be limited if their part has ‘rubbish’ chat.