Review: Obsession, Barbican

“There’s more to this magical life than the love of the ladies”

It has been impossible to ignore the reception of Ivo van Hove’s Obsession, the slight sense of glee (from some) at being able to dole out a critical drubbing to the feted director. And so I went into the Barbican with a slight sense of defensiveness – I’m only human after all – albeit with the knowledge that no-one is infallible. And whilst Obsession isn’t necessarily van Hove at his best (and lord know we’ve been spoiled there), it still makes for a fascinating piece of theatre.

Based on Luchino Visconti’s 1943 film, adapted by Jan Peter Gerrits and crucially, having its English version written by Simon Stephens, this is an altogether more abstract and expressionist affair than perhaps some were expecting. A tale of sex and murder, whose muscularity and moodiness sprawls over the vast stage with stylish languour, there’s a brooding beauty to the intensity here, captured excellently by two striking lead performances from Jude Law and Halina Reijn.

Law’s Gino is a charismatic drifter whose chance visit to a diner where Reijn’s (absolutely stunning in the title role of van Hove’s Maria Stuart) Hanna works sets sparks aflying as the sexual tension between instantly ignites. A small problem is that the diner is owned by Hanna’s abusive husband Joseph (a marvellously horrid Gijs Scholten van Aschat) but even as they plot together, it’s clear that more deep-seated issues lie in their lustful connection, not least a homoerotic subplot.

Jan Versweyveld’s design and Tal Yarden’s video construct the by-now familiar deconstructed modernist aesthetic of so much of van Hove’s work and with traditional notions of drama being discarded akin to Lazarus, Law and Reijn really have to #werk here. And that they do vividly – sexually explosive together, substantively different when apart, the physicality that both bring to the stage goes a long way to giving the production life.

There’s the odd moment where van Hove dallies with the overblown, coming close to what one assumes is meant by the reductiveness of the descriptor ‘European theatre’ but then again, one man’s pretentiousness is another man’s passion. An interesting addition to the repertoire for Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s residency at the Barbican this year and a fascinating insight into how critics deal with disappointed expectations.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Jan Versweyveld
Booking until 20th May


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