Review: OBSESSION

by Lynn on May 14, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Barbican Theatre, London, Engl. Via NTLive

Based on the 1943 Luchino Viscanti film
Adapted by Simon Stephens
Directed by Ivo van Hove
Designed by Jan Versweyveld
Cast: Aysha Kala
Jude Law
Halina Reijn
Cys Scholten van Aschat
Chukwadi Iwuji

A filmed stage production (courtesy of NTLIVE) of director Ivo van Hove’s latest epic, with lots of stage space, stark lighting, wild emotions, and practically no heart or real passion.

The Story. Gino is a drifter who happens into a roadside café/garage. He sees Hanna, a young, vibrant woman, doing her toenails and is immediately obsessed with her. Her much older husband (the owner of the place) is suspicious of Gino until he proves to be a master mechanic. Gino fixes both the water heater and the truck that the husband has been working on. After that Gino is welcomed into Hanna and her husband’s life. (sorry, no programs were available for the proper names or their spellings. Info has been gleaned from reviews of the play).

Gino and Hanna can’t keep their hands off each other. He certainly is obsessed by her and even tries to escape her allure. It doesn’t work. Gino does something drastic in an effort to have Hanna for his own but the overwhelming guilt consumes both of them.

The Production. The production starts with a filmed segment in which a man and a woman are in a vehicle and there is a crash and the woman is killed (she sits beside him with a blank stare and blood on her face). The man screams in anguish as he clutches her to him.

When the play proper begins we see the typical panorama of an Ivo van Hove production. The stage is huge. Eerie light pours into the space from a door-well upstage. There is a counter stage right on which Hanna is doing her toes. A hunk of meat is on the counter beside her. To the left is a rusty mass suspended above the stage representing a truck and its engine. Underneath it is Hanna’s husband, on his back, trying to fix the engine.

Gino appears in the door-well in the streaming light. Close-up of the ruggedly handsome, Jude Law. He sees Hanna doing her toenails on the counter and immediately goes to her and is instantly obsessed. She takes a look at him and she’s captured too. Hanna’s husband is wary and almost belligerent until Gino says he can fix the engine after Gino tells him what the problem is. The husband leaves and then Hanna and Gino can’t wait to grope and fondle each other.

In a filmed interview with van Hove before the production begins, he says that Gino and Hanna are like two animals around each other and as such there is no kissing. And while at times there is a lot of tenderness for the most part there is that muscular, energetic clutching etc. and the quickest most efficient removal of clothing. In the case of Jude Law it’s his t-shirt revealing his buffed pecs. Well, it is Jude Law and I guess there is a law (sorry) that says his t-shirt must be removed.

As Gino, Jude Law exudes that animal magnetism that attracts women and probably men too. Law broods as Gino, wanting Hanna but stifled by the desolation of the café/garage. He wants/needs to get out. She says she can’t leave. Law pines more in his loneliness. He prowls the stage looking for somewhere of comfort.

As Hanna, Halina Reijn has her own desperation—to get away from her older husband and leave with this hunk of a man named Gino, but she hesitates. Her angst is not as varied as Gino’s because he is conflicted in ways she is not.

When Gino and Hanna plot to kill her husband the three of them go for a ride in the truck. To create this they sit on the floor with the engine guts above them. At a certain point the engine lowers towards the trio with attendant machine noise. Gino strangles the husband as black oil gushes down from the engine. Could it also be symbolic of bodily fluids? Why not.

Gino and Hanna then wash the oil off each other at a large tub with water gushing from the tap. (another bit of symbolism?) Their washing each other is almost chaste it’s so tender. He is shirtless (of course) but in his boxers. She is topless but wears her underpants as she gets in the tub.

In the last scene of the play, and another bit of animal clinging, it’s the only time Gino and Hanna kiss, passionately, again, while oil gushes from above.

Comment. The production is part of the National Theatre Live series of filmed plays. And while the production takes place at the Barbican and not the National Theatre the intent is the same—to bring notable theatre productions in London to an international audience by filming them and then transmitting them almost the same night.

In the case of Obsession at least film seems an ideal way of presenting this stage production because film can capture where to look and what reaction to see. The Barbican stage seems like a football field on which are a few players. There is often such an expanse of stage between characters who are obsessed with each other, that film seems the best way of showing a nostril quivering with lust, or gasping breathing, or an obsessive stare.

Director Ivo van Hove likes this large almost bare space, with startling lighting in which characters wander the stage out of boredom, frenzy, exasperation, whatever. That was obvious in his recent production of Hedda Gabler in which I was in the Lyttelton Theatre at the performance that was filmed for NTLive. The stage was huge and stark. Hedda prowled with determination around and around, as did Judge Brack. That production too lacked heart, sadness, compassion and anything that would make us embrace Hedda. If you can’t find anything to compassionate about her, what’s the point of being in the room?

Obsession is based on the 1943 Luchino Viscanti film of the same name, which in turn is based on the novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” And if one wants to go even further back, the idea of two lovers plotting to kill the husband of the woman and then being haunted by what they did, you can’t get a better reference than Thérèse Raquin a novel (1867) and then a play (1873) by Émile Zola.

While we know that Gino and Hanna are obsessed by each other this production doesn’t do justice to that story. Van Hove’s insistence on the huge stage distances them and us from the passion. The lighting is stark and the sound is effective, but those are trappings. It becomes once again, a director who gets in the way of telling the story effectively.

A Barbican/Toneelgroep Amsterdam production.

First Showing: May 11, 2017.
Encore showing: June 24, 2017.

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