In their continuing efforts to bring their groundbreaking theatrical work to audiences around the world, National Theatre Live have completed a circle of sorts with their presentation of Ivo Van Hove’s ‘Obsession’. Rather than an established theatrical classic, the production is an adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1943 debut film ‘Ossessione’, one of the first great films of the Italian cinema neo-realist movement. On the one hand, you have an even more astute and cinematic presentation from NT Live of a theatrical work, aiming to preserve as much of the visual scale of the production as possible. On the other hand though, the production itself might not be worth the effort.
Lone drifter Gino (Jude Law) wanders into a bar in a small town owned by Giuseppe (Gijs Scholten van Aschat). Almost instantly, Gino begins a passionate and dangerous affair with Giuseppe’s wife Hanna (Halina Reijn), but as the unexpected violence and consequences of the affair begin to pile up around them, Gino is forced to decide whether to stay with Hanna and give up his wanderer’s lifestyle, or run away as fast as he can.
Ivo Van Hove is one of the most acclaimed directors in the world, many of his productions becoming touchtone theatrical moments in the past twenty years. He has established a strong relationship with the National Theatre, his monumental production of Arthur Miller’s ‘A View From The Bridge’ delivered a powerful, devastating reinterpretation of a classic work. His sparse, austere aesthetic is carried over here, and there’s no doubt that the effect of it is impressive. The events of ‘Obsession’ play out on a wide wooden stage, the only set-pieces a bar, a water pump and bath, and a car engine that can be suspended. It’s incredibly striking and the oppressive, psychological effect of it is impressive, but spaces like that only really work when the action on stage works in collaboration with them.
Unfortunately, this adaptation from Jan Peter Gerrits and Simon Stephens is stripped back to the point of obtuse banality, possibly with the expectations that Van Hove and the cast would fill the space in between the dialogue, which is so frustratingly on the nose that it has no emotional impact whatsoever. Initially, Van Hove finds much to mine from those liminal moments, but quickly the production loses its steam and ends up being a series of moments where horrible people lumber around a stage being emotional and horrid, while we watch them wondering what the point of this all is. The narrative of ‘Ossessione’ may have been fresh and shocking in the 1940s, but we’ve seen this scenario play out countless times, and no amount of (albeit often quite clever) theatrical trickery can save it. The gender and sexual politics also seem woefully out of date, Gino a horrid but ultimately redeemed man, regardless of what he has done, while Hanna ends up a desperate, shrieking wreck complete with the obligatory breakdown featuring racy dancing and throwing things. There’s also a bizarre homoerotic moment between Gino and fellow wanderer Johnny (Robert de Hoog) that feels obvious and unnecessary.
The actors do what they can, but even an actor of the calibre of Jude Law can’t overcome the failings of the material. He doesn’t rely on his natural charisma, working as hard as he can to make the whole thing work, but perhaps it’s his natural charisma that ultimately saves him. Reijn does what she can with a sketch of a character whose only job is to be sexy, emote and pine for her lover, while van Aschat is so disconnected as Giuseppe that his performance seems without heartbeat. In its final moments, Aysha Kala adds some much-needed humour, but she plays another female sexual object for Gino’s temptation, and her talent can’t save the problematic aspects of her character’s existence.
It’s basically impossible to have any sympathy for these people, which makes this a production basically impossible to connect with.
At least the presentation is up to scratch, with NT Live going to extra effort to capture Van Hove’s images and the substantial visual scale of the production. The broadcast captures exactly the right moments, including a remarkable final image of Gino in front of a projection towards the end of the production, and countless stunning close-ups of the performers. It's just a pity that what the cameras were capturing overall was so problematic.
After being blown away by Van Hove’s production of ‘A View From The Bridge’ a few years ago (also at an NT Live screening), I was very excited to check out ‘Obsession’ and ultimately very disappointed at how cold, banal and annoying it was. So much of it stank of indulgence, in an esoteric theatrical language of lazy psychology and broad-stroke emotions. It’s basically impossible to have any sympathy for these people, which makes this a production basically impossible to connect with. Even the sounds of the audiences at the Barbican where it was filmed suggested that they were probably thinking the same, intended dramatic but ultimately clichéd moments eliciting chuckles and stifled laughter. At just over an hour and a half, it heavily overstays its welcome, and leaves you with nothing at the end. At least its recording for posterity is an effective one.