Obsession at the Barbican Theatre
In many ways theatre is more limited than film, what with its CGI tricks and the arrival of the 3D format. But theatre’s trump card is the fact that it is a live event, inhabiting real space. As an aficionado of both media, Ivo van Hove presents Obsession as an homage to the original film by Luchino Visconti as well as an interbreeding of film and theatre.
Obsession is the fatalistic story of an affair between unhappy wife Hanna (Halina Rejin) and vagabond Gino (Jude Law), and of a passion too destructive to thrive. A mix of grace and force, Law is as authentic in his high-octane fight scenes as he is in his tender moments, both of which are performed with the fluid physicality of a dancer. Alongside the ever-more sought-after director, he is the play’s biggest draw. On the other hand, Reijn strikes a perfect balance of enigmatic and infuriating as his beloved Hanna. A woman tied down, she seeks to tie down Gino too, and he in turn is torn between love and the need for freedom.
The cinematography can be found in the huge projections on the walls, allowing intimate close ups of faces and hands; in the same scene offered from different angles; and in the continuous soundtrack that includes opera, the old-style romance of mournful violins and tense rhythmic beats. The vital theatrical element alongside these is distance. It’s used to great effect on the sprawling Barbican stage. When the lovers first meet, their lines of sight connect from afar over a rumbling truck engine. At the start of their relationship they’re all hands and bodies and close-up footage of skin on skin. As insecurities creep in, they are dwarfed by the huge space: a hopeless, tiny pair. Growing apart, the physical distance that yawns between them is so pronounced as to necessitate the front rows of the audience to turn their heads back and forth between them.
In some places the gauge seems turned a little too far to the cinematic. Often there is no sense of place or of time passing. Too many scenes, their transitions sometimes less than smooth, are squeezed into the almost two-hour running slot. Characters pop up out of nowhere; a fifth character seems more like a prop, an afterthought.
The staging is as leftfield as you’d expect from Hove: stark, vast and functional, but streaked with moments of chaos (the colourful contents of several emptied bins and a slick black puddle of oil) as passion leaves its messy mark. A pleasingly juxtaposed moment sees the lovers soap themselves off in a bathtub while nearby the oil puddle is arduously mopped up. Other aspects are less successful: there’s a treadmill which makes characters seem to pelt off at speed while really going nowhere, but the act becomes a little farcical.
Obsession, though substantial and ambitious, never quite hits its stride. The pulse-quickening moments happen when there’s a sudden increase in volume rather than a taut piece of storytelling. There are peaks that leave room for personal interpretations, and Law’s magnetism is palpable, but the gut-punch its audience awaits is never delivered.
Obsession is at the Barbican Theatre from 19th April until 20th May 2017, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for Obsession here: