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Jude Law lets his pumped biceps and ripped torso do most of the heavy acting work in his first London stage role in four years, a debut collaboration with feted superstar Belgian director Ivo van Hove. Obsession is based on Italian movie maestro Luchino Visconti’s 1943 feature debut Ossessione, which was itself an unauthorized version of James M. Cain’s much-filmed 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. These two cult European directors were clearly made for each other — this is van Hove’s fourth Visconti adaptation, a fatalistic saga of sex and murder that feels operatic in tone and cinematic in scale.
For such an erotically charged story, however, Obsession is also curiously lacking in emotional bite or sexual chemistry. While this production is big on spectacle, it has little fresh to say about its elemental themes of love, lust and betrayal. Even so, the combined box-office buzz of Law and van Hove has already made this short Barbican run a very hot ticket, after which it is sure to enjoy similar sell-out success at scheduled festival bookings in Vienna, Amsterdam and Luxembourg.
A classic proto-noir psychological thriller about an adulterous couple who commit murder in a misguided attempt to secure their future happiness, The Postman Always Rings Twice has a timeless dramatic power. It been adapted more than a dozen times for screen and stage, most famously by MGM in 1946, with Lana Turner and John Garfield as the homicidal lovers. Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange reprised the roles for director Bob Rafelson in 1981.
Visconti adapted Cain’s novel with the approval of the Fascist authorities in wartime Italy. An openly gay Communist sympathizer, he smuggled in an extra subtext of class conflict and added a boldly homoerotic subplot. The regime was understandably aghast, suppressing the film and destroying the negatives. Fortunately, Visconti was smart enough to keep a secret print for himself, rightly anticipating a warmer welcome by future audiences.
Presenting the play in Simon Stephens’ English translation, van Hove and his writer Jan Peter Gerrits strip away the grimy neo-realist texture of Visconti’s film, relocating the story to a vaguely defined contemporary non-place. Gino (Law) is a wily, handsome drifter who stumbles into the roadside diner run by sexually frustrated trophy wife Hanna (Halina Reijn) and her older husband, boorish control freak Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat). The penniless Gino is ravenous for food, while Hanna is hungry on a more carnal level. In short order, flirtatious electricity turns to full-blooded fornication, which van Hove stages as a vivid, superbly choreographed, quasi-dance number.
Initially suspicious, Joseph soon warms to Gino, offering him shelter and casual handyman work. But as the illicit affair heats up, the lovers are sucked into an increasingly destructive spiral. Gino sees the warning signs and tries to escape, but random fate reunites him with Hanna. As inevitably as Greek tragedy, they are finally driven to murder, only to turn against one another in an acrimonious frenzy of guilt and thwarted romantic idealism. Van Hove adds a homage to Macbeth here, with the dead Joseph haunting the stage like Banquo’s ghost while a nervy Hanna reassures Gino, Lady Macbeth style, “What’s done is done.”
Van Hove puts far more emphasis on the homoerotic subplot than even Visconti did. Johnny (Robert de Hoog) is a streetwise bit of rough trade who recognizes a kindred spirit in Gino, and works hard to lure him away from the stifling conventions of heterosexuality. “There’s more to this magical life than the love of the ladies,” he beams, urging Gino to take to the high seas and “sample the sailor’s life.” At any moment I half-expected him to break into the Village People classic “In the Navy,” which would not have seemed too incongruous in this stylistically broad production. Instead, the two men engage in a bout of manly wrestling to a slamdancing blast of Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which is equally satisfying and almost as absurd.
Law’s default acting style is a little too smirky and aloof to summon the kind of raw animal sensuality that both Garfield and Nicholson radiated onscreen. He gives good torso, which will undoubtedly help fill seats, but he makes a much more enticing sex-god antihero when he keeps his mouth shut. Van Hove and Gerrits seem to be strongly hinting that Gino’s love-hate tensions with Hanna are partly caused by closeted homosexuality, which is an interesting twist, but it does little to boost the lukewarm chemistry between the two leads.
Fortunately, Obsession is more ensemble piece than star vehicle. Reijn, a fixture in van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam theater company, delivers more dramatic fireworks as Hanna, half femme fatale and half desperate housewife. Scholten van Aschat is also a robust stage presence as Joseph, who van Hove presents as much more of an entitled alpha-male patriarch than the poor cuckolded victims in previous screen adaptations.
Working with regular stage and lighting design partner Jan Versweyveld, van Hove make full use of the Barbican’s cavernous subterranean theater space and its sophisticated technical resources. The stage set is a characteristically stark, geometric, modernist interior whose towering blank walls transform into video screens during more intimate scenes, blasting the audience with dreamy slow-motion close-ups of bare flesh and stolen kisses. A fully functional, smoke-belching, oil-leaking combustion engine dangles from the rafters, doubling as a vehicle during two pivotal road accident sequences. A treadmill discreetly placed center stage becomes a neat metaphor for desperate characters on a road to nowhere, always running but never escaping.
Music also features prominently, not just in the rich background score of somber choral pieces, but also dropped directly into the action in non-naturalistic vignettes that blur the line between drama and opera. Indeed, in a scene which stretches plausibility, opera-fan Joseph shakes the theater with a booming aria from La Traviata. Later, in a camp set-piece worthy of Pedro Almodovar, Hanna attempts to win back a wavering Gino by belting out a sassy French torch song, showering herself in trash as she sobs and flounces. A bluesy harmonica and a self-playing accordion also serve as recurring mood motifs in a sumptuous production that ultimately offers more surface dazzle than dramatic sizzle.
Venue: Barbican Centre, London
Cast: Jude Law, Robert de Hoog, Chukwudi Iwuji, Aysha Kala, Halina Reijn, Gijs Scholten van Aschat
Director: Ivo van Hove
Playwright: Jan Peter Gerrits, adapted from Luchino Visconti’s 1943 film Ossessione
English translation: Simon Stephens
Set & lighting designer: Jan Versweyveld
Costume designer: An d’Huys
Music & sound designer: Eric Sleichim
Presented by The Barbican, Toneelgroep Amsterdam
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