Obsession is an early example of Italian neorealist film: a mid twentieth century genre that concentrated on the dispossessed – typically the homeless and the working class – and that drew on documentary techniques. Visconti’s film is about a homeless wanderer who enters into the lives of a restaurant owner and his wife: embarking on a poassionate affair, murdering the husband and suffering the consequences.
Ivo Van Hove’s production (one of a series of three productions as part of Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s year long residency at the Barbican) is, as is to be expected, visually stunning, and conceived with intelligence and originality.
Jan Versweyveld’s lighting and stage design is typically figurative, stark and minimalist – incorporating projection, travelators, and key visual details taken from the film: a chassy and engine, an accordian, a water pump, a bath. It’s like a painting, and it’s lit beautifully.
Ivo Van Hove’s direction follows these cues: it’s non-literal (the actors rarely perform the activities we understand them to be doing, like eating a meal, fixing a water pump etc.); it’s lucid (we move across environments seamlessly); and it is built around central images and gestures.
In Van Hove’s hands, Obsession becomes a melancholic play about longing: with same-sex desire, the sea, freedom, romance, and the open road all conflated into the single object of desire for an intransigent spirit. In this sense, it is both relatable and subtly political: a play about an impossible but insatiable yearning for a different way of life – to escape our hetero-normative, work-oriented paradigm, in all its mundanity and staidness.
As such it’s a departure from the Visconti – it’s realism and its grittiness dispensed with in favour of lyricism, sadness and passion. So it’s a different beast, but judged as a work in its own right it remains both a work of beauty and of insight.
Simon Stephens’ script conveys all the themes described above very effectively. And it’s emotionally bare, which is appropriate for both the production and the narrative. My only criticism is the way in which it sometimes tries to incorporate English vernacular, which is a bit awkward given the deracionated style and the international cast.
But this is minor compared to the bigger issue that is Jude Law. I don’t think I’ve ever written a review in which I’ve singled out an actor in this way: it just seems mean and pointless. But here there’s nothing else I can say: he seems to me to be solely responsible for the flatness that prevents this production from being what it could be.
First off, he’s hopelessly British and well-to-do – which sort of takes the edge off a play that’s about homelessness. Second, throughout the show he only really moves between two gears – wannabe sultry and petulant. Working alongside a brilliant cast, all nuanced and multifaceted to equal measure – including Halina Reijn, Gils Scholten von Aschat and Chukwudi Iwuji – Law’s limited register becomes painfully obvious. But third and most importantly, he’s just totally unconvincing. Nothing he says has even the faintest ring of truth about it: his acting style is the pinnacle of self-consciousness – inherently performative and phoney.
If I’m honest, I find it deeply depressing that people don’t seem to notice – but then Hollywood is so inundated with such untalented, but beautiful and privilege-exuding actors that everyone’s probably just desensitised. Directors like like Van Hove, however, should surely be above all that…
Van Hove’s productions, with their sparseness, lyricism and simplicity – really depend on having solid performances at their core. When they do, they can be mesmerizing. When they don’t, they run the risk of becoming dull and indulgent. Unfortunately, Law’s performance drags Obsession in that direction.