“Everybody wants passion, and to live a passionate life…[but] passion is a devouring force. Though passion is unliveable, we crave it.” So says Ivo van Hove in the programme for his stage adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1943 film, Obsession. Passion is indeed is the force to be reckoned with here in the director-of-the-moment’s latest production – the question is whether it can be excised from the body of life and studied like some peculiar, insanity-inducing virus. Like all great emotions, it is difficult if not impossible to examine it in isolation.
Nevertheless, the entire creative team get stuck in without hesitation. Jan Versweyveld’s extravagantly spacious set feels almost immersive in its open-plan ingeniousness, a sea of slick wooden floors and suspended artefacts – a menacing engine churning smoke, a possessed accordion, a gushing tap and sink that double as an intimate bath. The only duff note is a bar that suggests more hotel lobby than neglected watering hole. But the production’s sumptuous lighting (also Versweyveld’s work) keeps the roaming cast from being swallowed by the Barbican’s cavernous space.
As stories go, it’s not a unicum of plot. An unhappily married woman meets a virile man, and the resulting affair engulfs their world – back and forth through the flames they go, crimes of passion hot on their heels. Drifter Gino (an exceptional Jude Law, even more captivating on stage than on screen these days) enters tootling on a harmonica, like some wandering trickster god. Hungry for a meal and a little respite from his restless, Platonov-like love of the road, he lucks his way into the lives of Hanna (the mesmerising Halina Reijn) and Joseph (a vigorously chauvinistic Gijs Scholten van Aschat). It soon becomes clear that Gino, a former soldier and sometime mechanic, is the bolt of lightning that the resourceful yet desperate Hanna has been yearning for. Other characters appear sparsely, ominously, powerfully – from the priest/inspector of Chukwudi Iwuji (perfectly pitched if underused) to Aysha Kala’s beguilingly angelic Anita.
Rather than being allowed to develop from this enigmatic entrance however, the character of Gino diminishes in power (and sanity) over the course of an interval-less hour and fifty minutes. The sexual tension between the actors remains palpable, right from the violence of their first clinch, underlain by a climax of discordant brass. Then the story both surprises and disengages in its swift development. Indeed, the ease with which the scenes skip periods of time is one thing the script has on its side. But the text, stripped of references to its original Italian setting (bar a spectacular aria from La traviata) feels hollow when compared to recent updates of older texts (see last year’s Yerma). Drink is only ever referred to as drink, food is just a meal – the lack of specificity bleeds the world dry. And despite their intoxicating chemistry, Gino and Hanna are never quite equipped to win the battle for our hearts.
Fans of van Hove will not be leaving without touches of signature brilliance to relish. A tender moment of one lover dressing the other in a cardigan is potently evoked, as is a sour moment of spitting out an unwanted kiss. Eric Sleichim’s compositions provide the pulse of passion where words do not, and most of the cast enjoy a stint of heightened song (a proper stage-trashing show-stopper in Reijn’s case). Van Hove’s direction lends the whole ensemble a viscid physicality, the fight scenes explosively evoked. And there’s a striking moment in the slick aftermath of murder where the brutal mess is cleaned up by the dead character themselves.
The simple pity of the production is that the script and story lack the vitality of the cast and director. There is a denial of catharsis here, a lack of exploration of the symptoms of passion, cutting instead to its most destructive effects. Couples in the audience, so giddy on arrival, left looking slightly expunged. Perhaps this is the point – it isn’t Romeo & Juliet, and neither is life. An intriguing, occasionally incendiary production – but not the work that van Hove will be best remembered for.