'Obsession' review or 'I think there's something wrong with your engine.'

Obsession – Visconti/Stephens
Barbican Theatre – 25th April 2017  

I couldn’t sleep last night. Perhaps I was dreaming that Jude Law was killing me in a very sexy and very manly manner. I hope that I wasn’t. It would be unfair to experience that again.

Jude Law is not terrible in Ivo van Hove’s latest theatrical offering – an adaptation of Visconti’s 1943 film of jealousy and passion, ‘Obsession’. He really isn’t bad at all (if not suffering from a bit of puffed up pretension). Law plays Gino – a drifter mechanic who just wants to FEEL DAMMIT – and there’s a restless energy about him that can be pretty compelling. When Law seduces (and he does this a lot), when he fights and when he kills, he gives off some serious heat. I reckon he could be very powerful in the right kind of role; one that harnesses all that sweaty energy and does something interesting and surprising with it. But there isn’t a huge amount more to Law’s performance other than energy and sweat. That’s not really his fault. This doesn’t feel like a production that has been necessarily been made with the actors in mind – nor, particularly, the audience.

This is Ivo van Hove stuck between two camps. It is the first time he has merged the actors from Toneelgroep Amsterdam with a British actor, and they haven’t found a convincing way to work together. There’s an offbeat energy to all the Dutch actors – as if they’re always performing at an odd angle – that makes strange yet unsettling sense, when the company works together. But Jude Law is a very straight actor: he hits the meaning of words cleanly on the head and constantly looks out to the audience. He looks outwards whereas the other actors look to each other. They’ve spent most of their careers as brilliant ensemble actors. Law is used to being The Star.

The Toneelgroep actors – including Haline Rejin as Gino’s lover Hanna and Gijs Scholten van Aschat as her weirdly terrifying husband – are capable of incorporating strange (occasionally indulgent) theatrical twists into their performance. They might burst into operatic song, dance around with a chorus of litter or rise up from the dead and mop up their own oily, bloody remains. Rejin and Aschat understand implicitly how pull off these crazy flourishes – and it’s mainly by dampening them a little, by absorbing the quirks and making them feel ‘normal’. But Jude Law looks a little lost. Frequently – as we he runs away from or towards his love Hanna – he literally runs on a travellator that has been embedded into the stage. Law's determined, sweaty, and oh so earnest face, is projected endlessly about the huge screens, suspended above stage. It feels like we're watching him work out at the gym.

There are countless other red-hazed fantasies that simply don’t come off. When Law’s Gino first seduces Hanna, he pretty much mounts her like an animal. For a second, it’s all pretty sexy. As I said, Law can generate some serious heat. He also looks very, very good with his top off. But then Ivo van Hove  ‘augments’ this moment by bringing the lights up on a suspended accordion, which seems to play a tune independently, whilst dangling in the air. It is all deeply strange. Is this dangling accordion meant to hint at lost romance or the emergence of a truly artistic soul? Or is it just a weirdly suspended musical instrument?

There are other moments that stand out, for the wrong reasons. A suspended car is a central part of Jan Versweyveld’s set and I guess it feels quite threatening lots of the time - but it does start to steal the show in a seriously dubious manner. There are a number of scenes in which the car’s engine is started, a great roar fills the stage and smoke begins to puff out the exhaust pipe. Is this meant to be the angry driving force of man? Is this meant to be a fast and furious future these everyday souls cannot reach? Or is this just a deeply bizarre and smoking flying machine?

All these mis-firing embellishments would be OK if there was guts and heart, and arresting characters in here – but there is not. As I said, the actors don’t seem to be a huge part of this theatrical equation. They are often projected in all their magnified glory on the hanging screens that envelop the stage, but that does not mean they really have a presence. Those screens are more about the effects the director wants to achieve, rather than being genuinely useful or exciting tools for the actors.

But no – the characters are ropey and, what does emerge about these lost souls in an unnamed location is frankly baffling. Simon Stephens – who seems to have developed a real aversion to rich characters and layered dialogue - has written the adaptation and he’s stripped it just about as bare as can be. Everyone spends the whole time spelling out their feelings in the simplest fashion; ‘I love you, I need you, I’m lost.’ It’s all very stark and very strange – and very miked up. Is this meant to be the essence of life; all the excess of language stripped down to the bare bones of pure and honest emotion? Or is it just rather thin and unconvincing dialogue?

Again, perhaps this would be OK if there was some sort of purpose or resonance to the bare emotional confessions from these barely emotional characters – but there isn’t. Whatismore, the sympathies in this production lie in the strangest of places. By the end of ‘Obsession’, Law’s character has turned psychotic. He is not a man you’d want to share a pint with – and certainly not a bed. Yet Ivo van Hove depicts Gino as a romantic hero; a man who just wants to feel something honest and true, even if it does mean killing a few people along the way. As the production grandly stutters to a close, Gino bashfully (and beautifully) despairs: ‘You must think I’m a monster!’ He is met with the adoring reply: ‘I think you’re a human being.’ I beg to differ, Gino. I beg to differ.