Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***

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Obsession

Barbican Theatre, 13th May 2017

In retrospect there were warning signs.

This was an adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1943 debut film, Obssessione, itself based on a book by James M. Cain, the Postman Always Rings Twice, which in turn was later made into an American film in 1946 (Lana Turner, John Garfield) and 1981 (Jack Nicholson, Jessica Lange with a David Mamet screenplay). There have apparently been 4 other film adataptions, another play and even an opera based on the book. I had seen both US films and Obssessione but I confess my memory of plot and character was more skewed to both of the US films and not Visconti’s “neo-realist’ masterpiece.

So, on this basis, and given the provenance of director and cast here, I got quite excited, so I strong-armed, in so far as that is possible with people of such admirably independent will, the SO and the Blonde Bombshells into coming with me to this performance. In doing so I broke my own golden rule – if a play is an adaptation of a novel or a film, or both, be careful to evaluate the source material before signing up. There have been plenty of recent marvellous adaptations for theatre but, if a play is not written expressly for the theatre then, in my view, the audience is at potentially greater risk of disappointment if the vision of the creative team falls short. A book has description (objective and subjective) and the reader’s imaginations to fill the gaps and film has the ever moving eye of the camera to direct the viewer. A play though needs the text, the things the characters say, to do the heavy lifting. When it works for me at least theatre trumps (see even this word still has some utility) any other artistic form and especially film.

Our director here, the mercurial Ivo van Hove, has a recognisable aesthetic and has used Visconti films as his inspiration before. The story here, on the one hand, is simple, but effective and timeless. A drifter finds himself at a restaurant, falls passionately in love with the trapped wife of her older husband who owns it, and they jointly resolve to do him in. The damaging consequences of this act are then cleverly explored. But Visconti was creating his film against the backdrop of censorship in Fascist Italy and looked to explore issues of agency, power, class, gender and sex in relationship to this backdrop. He also introduced another character, (here named Johnny), to contrast domesticity and control with freedom, both individual and political. There are a lot of lingering long and medium shots of rural Italian landscapes and interiors. The characters don’t say too much. There are dramatic devices (cats, the sound of the sea, guns, car crashes and so on) to heighten the whole confection.

So easy enough to see why Mr van Hove wanted to bring this into the theatre. The problems once again lie in the how he and his key collaborators, designer Jan Versweveld and scriptwriter Simon Stephens, choose to do this, and also, it pains me to say, who they cast to do it. This team is not one for fussy sets. Whilst not as minimalist as their A View from the Bridge or Crucible, there was not much to see, just the bare necessities to symbolise kitchen, bathroom/tap, car and jukebox, with some video close-ups, some video waves, Italian opera, Springsteen, Waits and Iggy on the soundtrack and a few props. Again this is not, of itself, a problem but when combined with a very sparse text, the deliberate eliding of time-frames and the giant Barbican stage, left the production feeling too one-paced and distant for me. In the Visconti film the camera is conveying information even when the characters are not; here we were not afforded that visual insight.

Now as I say I should have been cognisant of the risk. Mr van Hove does ask a lot of his audiences. By stripping back what you see to the bare essentials you are forced to focus on what the characters are saying and doing. When the text comes from the pen of Arthur Miller or Henrik Ibsen (with a bit of polishing up by another playwright in Patrick Marber for the NT Hedda Gabler) then the source material is so rich this can work splendidly. Or, when you have the riches of Shakespeare to play with, you can make it work even after taking a hefty scalpel to the source and translating it. Or indeed when Simon Stephens writes an original play, Songs From far Away for Mr van Hove to get his mitts on.

But if you have less to play with as here, and you are wedded to the notion of bringing this very cinematic film to theatrical life, then it can fall short. What I think we saw, and not just us judging by the reviews, was not, I think, what the creative team saw, in part because they were so immersed in what they were trying to create. And at times I fear it did come disturbingly close to self parody (witness the treadmill and profligate bin emptying).

Which brings me to the third issue. I can’t put my finger on it but when I have seen the Dutch members of the cast in the Toneelgroep Amsterdam Shakespeare extravanganzas Kings of War or the Roman Tragedies, they were awesome, as in their performances inspired awe. Here, Gijs Scolten van Aschat and Halina Reijn just seemed more muted. And I had expected so much more of Jude Law playing Gino. He just didn’t look comfortable as a man of passion or of self doubt. It was nowhere near as disappointing as Juliette Binoche in Mr van Hove’s Antigone here in 2015. She was just out of her depth. Mind you that Antigone production also shows that if the words aren’t right (poet Anne Carson’s translation was all over the place) then the minimalist aesthetic cannot deliver.

So all in all a notable let-down. However, despite the elongation of tone and dearth of pace it wasn’t actually dull and there was stuff to chew on. It’s just that I had no opportunity for emotional engagement.

Yet I will not give up on Mr van Hove and his TA team. When it works it cannot be bettered. I just have to be more careful to think about the source. Next year, as an example, they are letting Robert Icke, our own British wunderkind director (Hamlet, Oresteia, 1984), loose on Oedipus. Yes that’s right Sophocles’s tale of f*cking it up big time with Hans Kesting in the lead. Blimey. That cannot possibly fail right?

P.S. I must also work out what this dramaturgy thing is all about as it is now dawning on me that it matters.

 

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