Obsession is the second of three plays as part of Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s residency at the Barbican – a follow-up to the exceptional revival of Roman Tragedies earlier this year.
It has all the big-name draw you could possibly expect: Belgian maestro Ivan van Hove returns to direct with long-term collaborator and designer Jan Versweyveld; the translation has been written by Tony award winner Simon Stephens; BAFTA winner and Oscar nominee Jude Law stars alongside Dutch legend Halina Reijn; the play itself is adapted from classic Italian neorealism film Obsessione.
On paper, this should be an instant hit. Obsession could – and should – have been a fiery tale of the destruction that can surround a passionate love affair. Instead, it was abstract and detached, plodding and cliched.
Jude Law plays harmonica-wielding, mostly shirtless drifter Gino as he turns up in some nameless, place-less town. He arrives at an un-named inn run by an unhappy couple, and, after an initially frosty reception from Joseph – the arrogant and aggressive husband played by Gijs van Aschat– they take him in, in exchange for work as their mechanic.
the play seems better suited to a smaller, more intimate backbox space. As it is, it feels cold and hollow
Unlike her husband, Hanna – the unhappy abused wife played by Halina Reijn – has no such reservations about Gino, and not only welcomes him warmly and feeds him immediately, but proceeds to fall in love. The pair are in each other’s arms almost as soon as Joseph has left the building. The rest of the play unfolds somewhat formulaically: they plan to elope, they murder the husband, the police investigation provokes guilt, and the guilt tears them apart. I would normally do my best to avoid spoilers, but the subtext and foreshadowing is laid on so heavy-handedly that most of the audience have guessed the events of the play five minutes in. The writing never gets much better, mostly falling back on clichés and bored tropes to drag it through: “You’re not like other men” a dancing girl tells Gino, “But I like that”.
The set design is similarly lacking in substance, if in a somewhat more literal sense. The vast space of the Barbican stage is for the most part littered with only a couple of props or set items: a heart-shaped engine block suspended in mid-air; a large water basin and pump; a bare kitchen counter behind which Hanna spends most of the play. This leaves much of the action feeling terribly empty. There is only so much space two or three actors can fill, so huge swathes of the stage go totally unused throughout the performance. It comes off as a bizarre design choice; with Gino constantly feeling trapped by his environment and Hanna likewise by her marriage, the play seems better suited to a smaller, more intimate backbox space. As it is, it feels cold and hollow.
at its best, these moments are underscored by a beautiful and emotive soundtrack present throughout the play
This all comes as part of van Hove’s drive for abstraction. All references to location or period have been purged ruthlessly in an aim to present this as an eternal story of human nature that transcends any single time or place. This is the greatest weakness of the play. Whilst an interesting idea in theory, in practice it leaves characters lacking motivation and behaving in ways which make little sense. Without the backdrop of 1940s Italy that we have in the original film, we are left wanting for backstory. There is no indication of the stifling culture of patriarchy that Hanna lives in, nor the deeply religious background that forbids divorce and shames marital woes, nor the huge economic issues and class divide that underpin the relationship between Gino and his boss. Without this it is difficult to sympathise with the protagonists or understand why they feel the need for such drastic action.
Nevertheless, there were certainly moments and aspects of this production that I begrudgingly enjoyed. There is no question that Law and Reijn both give excellent performances, and the play only begins to show a shimmer of its potential when the pair are untethered and given freedom to go at each other with the energy and passion their roles deserve. When at its best, these moments are underscored by a beautiful and emotive soundtrack present throughout the play. Sound designer Eric Sleichim mixes a live harmonica and accordion with a variety of opera and choral music seamlessly, creating the only aspect of the production that successfully draws from the play’s historical roots.
Final verdict? We’ve seen far better from van Hove and Toneelgroep Amsterdam. It certainly wasn’t terrible, but instead a deeply flawed concept held together by some strong performances. I look forward to seeing if the third offering from this group will be up to their usual standard.
Obsession is playing the the Barbican until 20th May, details and booking information here.
Image: Jan Versweyveld