Toneelgroep, Barbican, Obsession, the play

We’ve just returned from tonight’s performance of Obsession, the play with Jude Law, at the Barbican, and we were not very pleased. It is one of three Toneelgroep (“Theatre Group”) Amsterdam productions directed by Ivo van Hove at the Barbican this year. The play is based on a homonymous 1942 Luchino Visconti film, which is itself based on a well-known novel by James M Cain called ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ The movie was adapted seven times with the 1946 version, named after the book, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield being the best-known one. It is not the first Visconti movie that van Hove has adapted for the stage. We watched part of the original film on Youtube after our visit to the theatre and we enjoyed it. The movie is very intense and its title does not need any explaining.

We had read about the plot (but not any of the reviews of the actual performance) a few weeks back, and were immediately taken in by the idea of a dark, noir movie with murder, love, and desperation turned into a play. It really struck a chord. Images of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams plays we had recently seen passed our minds. What a cool idea, we thought, but little did we know.

Credit: Jan Versweyveld Credit: Jan Versweyveld Credit: Jan Versweyveld

[All photos credit to Jan Versweyveld, except the feature photo, which was taken by us.]

It started with the stage set, which was outrageously lame. We’ve seen primary school plays of our nieces and nephews that would have to be called sophisticated compared with what was thrown at our eyes tonight. Nothing much there that could be called a stage set, to put it mildly. In the end a giant screen popped up, the rest of the time we just faced the actual stage with lots of rubbish or other items floating around. We also found it highly annoying that from about half way through the play, loud dripping sounds of what is supposed to be oil from an engine dripping onto the floor built the background noise of the play with mind-numbing repetitive regularity. Drip. Drip. Drip.

Credit: Jan Versweyveld Credit: Jan Versweyveld Credit: Jan Versweyveld

The plot can easily be summed up in a few sentences (which we knew, and which is not at all negative): Jude Law‘s Gino, a down-and-out drifter arrives at a bar in the middle of nowhere, that is run by Joseph (played by Gijs Scholten van Aschat, who previously played Hamlet at the Dutch national theatre), a roughly 60-year old, grumpy man, and his hot, young wife Hanna (played by Halina Reijn), who is clearly unhappy with the relationship and her life. Gino persuades the old man to let him stay for a few days with room and board in turn for a few handyman jobs. It takes him no more than a few minutes to start a hanky-panky with Hanna, and it soon becomes clear they have fallen in love.

The young lovers start plotting the murder of the old grumpy man, kill him, and then set out on an unhappy relationship that ends in disaster.

It is easy to see how letting a heartthrob like Jude Law and the pleasant-looking Ms Reijn run around topless for extended periods of time would have felt like the obvious thing to do to the producers, but it felt awkward. It didn’t add any intensity or erotic zing, because the characters or rather how they were portrayed was too flat and wooden. There is nothing of the “magnetically handsome” (verbatim from the Barbican’s website) man that turns a full room into silence and evokes images of an irresistible but dangerous angel of darkness, so well-portrayed by Massimo Girotti in the film.

Credit: Jan Versweyveld Credit: Jan Versweyveld Credit: Jan Versweyveld

There would have been plenty of ways to transform this fine plot into a riveting play. The clue is in the title. This type of thing usually goes quite well on stage. And there were many other missed opportunities. For example, the old curmudgeon is gradually warming up to Gino, taken in by his lie that they had both served in the army, he is starting to care for Gino, makes him shave and clean himself, shares thoughts about marriage with him, even offers that he could join him going fishing, all this while Gino is preparing to kill him. The characters also repeatedly talk about the unbearably hot weather, but instead of turning this into an amplifier like it was done in Streetcar Called Desire and many other plays, with a sense of heat turning into an all-encompassing, numbing madness, this production did not pick up on that theme at all. The list goes on.

The acting is half-hearted, no credible emotions, sense of passion and despair, no twists, no turns, you simply watch for (at least a graciously short) one hour and forty minutes how the predictable plot heavily stumbles towards the finish.

Thoroughly disappointing. 1.5 out of 5 in our book.

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