The Damned (Les Damnés) at the Barbican
“The complicity of the people is the great miracle of the Third Reich.” In Ivo van Hove’s The Damned (Les Damnés) – another of the auteur’s film adaptions, the director working off Luchino Visconti’s original screenplay – we witness a family’s willingness to fund and fuel their own destruction in the face of the Nazi regime. Turn to 2019 and you can take your pick as to what that could be a metaphor for.
A bit like Tories and their precious party, the Essenback Steelworks is the only thing that matters to its namesake clan. Morals, loyalties and love all fall by the wayside as they try and protect their industrial legacy. Yet they’ve let the viper into the nest, the vice-grip of Nazi rule choking the life out of the family.
Honestly, the plot of the production matters less than the images van Hove and his team – including usual collaborators Jan Versweyveld and Tal Yarden – create. One such example: as the play goes on the actors make their way from the busy waiting room on the left to the black coffins laid out house-right. Once encased, the newly deceased find themselves displayed on the central screen that dominates the set, the audience watching them suffer a second, silent, screaming death as business continues elsewhere.
The Belgian director isn’t the only draw. The production comes from the legendary Comédie-Française, who have brought some big performances across the pond. Most of the crucial family scenes descend into shouting matches, not least when they involve Christophe Montenez’s Martin, who acts – and looks – like a cross between Perfume Genius and Ramsay Bolton.
This means the largely dialogue-free moments tend to be the most inedible. The play’s greatest sequence – and it is one for the ages – sees van Hove take on the Night of Long Knives, the eradication of the SA by the SS. Wretched family bully Konstantin and his young cohort belt out German anthems, gradually joined by the rest of their regiment – but only on screen; they’re left on their lonesome on stage. A balls-out session of slip and slide Aryan homoeroticism follows, until the black uniforms of the SS enter, wiping out the division. It’d be a shame to spoil how it’s done; let’s just say it’s very van Hovian in execution, and utterly hypnotic.
There are other issues beyond some of the acting. The few women in the piece get a raw deal, while there are questions to be asked about the way Martin is portrayed, with the production leaning into an archaic and dangerous idea of the sexual “deviant”.
But the sweep of the piece is hard to resist. Just when it feels like it’s teetering on the brink of being operatically silly, it will take a visceral and terrifying lurch into an image of startling clarity and relevance.
Photo: Jan Verseyveld
The Damned (Les Damnés) is at the Barbican from 19th June until 25th June 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.