On Thursday 11th May 2017 I was extremely excited to attend the performance of Obsession, directed by Ivo van Hove, at the Barbican Theatre, London, 7:00pm. My seats were perfect; Jude Law’s near-nakedness was perfect; the production however, was not…
BUT FIRST: A summary (a long one…)
A man named Gino (Jude Law) arrives at a café, which also looks like a mechanics garage due to the suspended miniature version of a rusty truck and an old fashioned water pump on stage left. He arrives playing a harmonica. He needs food. The man in charge of the garage wants him to go away, but his wife Hanna (Halina Reijn) serves him. Immediately there is a MOMENT – not a subtle, beautiful, gentle yet electric pause, but a dry, obvious freeze of the two. I was transported to a drama lesson titled “Marking the Moment”.
Gino and Hanna have an intense affair. Their passion spirals into destruction, Gino cannot leave Hanna, the trapped wife, with her misogynistic husband; he is warned by other characters that she stops him being free but he does not listen. Hanna seem to not be able to leave her husband, terrified about returning to years prior when she was so poor she had to prostitute herself out for food. So together they murder her husband. Yet, this is still not enough for Hanna to run away with Gino and leave everything behind to start a new life. She insists they stay and when it is revealed she stayed so she could benefit from her husband’s death by receiving a large lump of money from his life insurance, Gino realises he has been manipulated and lied to. She may have loved him, but she loved living a life with the security money provides more. However, Gino is in constant pursuit of freedom, the purest form involving risk and sleeping under the stars in favour of social restrictions. The couple start fighting until Gino states he has to leave and she threatens to impeach him in the murder, demanding that he shall not leave her. Tensions and betray run high until one kills the other. The play exhibited passion to the point of insanity; animal savagery over reason; losing everything to try and find a freedom.
It echoed Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it was set in the wonderful space that is the Barbican Theatre, it had a phenomenal cast and all of this was just wasted.
FINALLY (I hear you say) MY REVIEW:
It should have been a destructively beautiful production exploring the two character’s doomed future, their journey, how their passion, ignited between a desperate man and a trapped wife, spirals beyond reason; subtlety combined with a human grotesqueness as the characters whirl out of control. I should have been moved, excited, horrified.
I was bored. I am a girl who can sit through the entirety of Gone with the Wind and want to watch it immediately again because I absolutely love it; I am a girl who will avidly read poetry from books I actually own and have read poems PAGES long; I am a girl who enjoys ironing for goodness sakes.
Yet, I am the girl who sat through Obsession bored out of my flipping mind, fidgeting, desperate to leave and would have if I were watching it at the cinema and not at the Barbican Theatre, ground floor, slap bang in the middle.
At the start I was quite hopeful. There was a clear, albeit amateurish, connection between Gino and Hanna. Their sexual affair performed was a fantastic blend of hushed, grotesque humanity meeting the urgent tones passion demands. It was violent with moments of caress and there was a cinematic version of the intimacy on the back walls. Bathed in soft red the filmed version were close ups of the faces at different points in the act. I must say, Halina Reign not only translates beautifully on film but I think her performance was phenomenal.
Jude Law…beautiful, especially when almost naked, in fact, even more so with less clothes on, performed Gino with an interesting mix between a wooden character and moments of extreme intensity. I personally enjoyed the more intense moments where Jude actually reminded me of Macbeth when channelling those extremes of passion and murder. Unfortunately, the moments of drama were overtaken by longer periods when the character appeared more wooden, especially when compared to the others.
And I did expect a production full of drama where plot and performance owned the huge stage space. But what a waste of the stunning theatre space afforded to them at the Barbican Theatre. For the most part, the stage was almost entirely bare. Apart from a couple of set pieces such as blocks to represent the café counter and an out of place rusty water pump on the other side, there was just empty, dead space. Although this shows the desolation of their lives having the café in what appeared to be a rusty garage does not work.
However, there was a moment where the stage was littered with rubbish from the café in a moment of estranged madness from Hanna. I was expecting actual rubbish, dirty food-like rubbish thrown out by a café. Instead, the contents of paper plates and those large, American red cups resembled the rubbish from a group of university students clearing up after Fresher’s week.
[And honestly…Where the hell did you manage to get the American drinking cups in RED? I only ever find them in blue!]
The stage had one more unique feature. Incorporated into the stage floor was a wooden rectangle of a treadmill. The actors would run on it, waving their arms haphazardly, running from their personal “cages”. Not only did it look ridiculous, but you could actually hear the sound of a treadmill. There was a moment of poignancy in the production when Gino runs on it alone, distraught at leaving. Him, running like he’s stumbling with every foot, arms frantically waving to Dionysus, the treadmill audibly whirring away was unbelievably hilarious. I’m sorry Jude, but you looked ridiculous. And I feel sorry for him; he was panting and sweating buckets running like that.
But I haven’t even reached the best part yet. The characters would randomly, and I mean randomly, burst into full opera. Full on, foreign language, opera. Horrific. I HATE opera. But I could have tolerated it, I really could…I burst out laughing. I am so sorry for row P, specifically seats around the 33 mark – I have a horrible feeling that my laughter literally flew out and smacked you in the back of the head.
Hanna was throwing the rubbish out, had burst into opera, and was doing some completely out of place Latin-inspired dancing. Absolutely ridiculous.
However, I did enjoy the murders with the loud music, the physical theatre of Hanna and Gino conjoining in the murder, the writhing of the victim amidst the flashing lights. It changed the pace for a few moments and I relished that. Nevertheless, every time a character killed another there was an oil spill from underneath the toy-sized truck suspended. The black slick covered the character and stage. Sounds interesting right? It felt like the production was attempting to integrate some performance art just for the sake of it. The oil wasn’t integrated, it only contributed to an already grimy, dull aesthetic. Unfortunately, it felt out of place and unnecessary. Covering actors in a black, liquid substance is not the most original way of representing death.
At the end when one kills the other in order to be set free from them, a stunning animation of waves on an elongated, horizontal, blinding screen was shown. The change of scene and light from the dingy place where Hanna lived to this place of spatial freedom was successful and the production was in desperate need for a change of aesthetic.
Until the drama-queen-like oil spill started rupturing all over the beach….
So, clearly I was not a fan of Obsession. I thought the cast were fantastic, the actual performance of the actors was superb. But, they were wasted on this production, especially Jude Law. There were moments where he definitely echoed a Macbeth estranged by his wife who controls him and the situation, but there were lost within a dead-man’s pace and a production which tried to have everything in it (opera, projections, physical theatre, performance art) over a well-considered concept binding aesthetic with superb performance in order to deliver an interesting plot and engage the audience in the character’s pursuit of freedoms, but at what cost? (Maybe ask for your money back and save on the train fare?)