BWW Review: OBSESSION, Barbican

"Everybody wants passion," says Ivo Van Hove in the programme interview for his latest show, but in both tone and aesthetic, his take on this doomed romance is less red-hot fire of ardour, more the cold, grey ash left in the wake of a consuming flame. It's intermittently beautiful and thoughtful, but lacks the necessary fervour that binds lover to lover, and audience to material.

Obsession is the first time van Hove's Toneelgroep Amsterdam company has premiered a piece in English; the production combines Dutch and English actors. But it's otherwise habitual territory, with recurring van Hove tropes and a return to the big screen for inspiration - in this case Visconti's stylish 1943 film, based on The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Jude Law is drifter Gino, who stops at a roadside café and there falls for an unhappily married woman - with deadly results. Simon Stephens provides a bald translation of Jan Peter Gerrits's adaptation, and though it's hard to altogether sidestep film noir clichés and wring tension from a familiar tale, the text is sometimes unintentionally amusing in its candour and explicit portentousness - neither ideal for theatre.

In fact a return to screen facilitates several striking, wordless moments, thanks to Tal Yarden's video projections. When Gino and Hanna first give into their desire, screens fixate on parts of their bodies: inviting eyes, sensual lips, exploring hands, bodies arching in pain and pleasure. Fruitless attempts to escape involve desperately running in place - rather undercut by the prosaic squeak of the treadmill, but rescued by the close-ups of haunted faces.

Otherwise the exploration of this destructive love triangle is more analytical, van Hove placing the trio in intimate configurations or pulling them apart; at one point Law's Gino disappears entirely behind a pillar while Hanna entreats him. There's a fine line, too, between love and violence, with tender embraces turning murderous and vice versa.

Hanna is evidently caught in a terrible pattern, repeating lines to her increasingly disinterested lover that she once spoke to husband Joseph ("You talk as if I'm not here") or using the same strategies to mollify him, like playful kittenish yowls, but - despite the best efforts of the compelling Halina Reijn - there's a distinct lack of psychological exploration.

Hanna explains her marriage by recalling a destitute life of sitting in cheap cafés, hoping some man would buy her a meal. But there's surely more to her restless desperation, the clinging to tedium while she talks of adventure, the acceptance of abuse and rejection as somehow deserved. Instead, her symbolic scattering of rubbish tips into the comical.

Van Hove pays more attention to facets of traditional masculinity; this is a world in which insinuating detectives eye leggy chorus girls and even the priest is downing hard liquor. Joseph respects Gino when he proves his worth as a mechanic - the frequently topless Law is certainly arresting in muscular silhouette, wielding a wrench - and refers to their shared dark knowledge of "a man's deeds and needs".

In an effectively nasty performance, Gijs Scholten van Achat's Joseph demonstrates a forceful physical possession of Hanna, but also hints at complicity; why wouldn't the virile Gino desire his wife? If the central romance is undercooked, Law is impressive at conveying Gino's latent aggression. His movement is prowling, animalistic - the monster lurking inside men - and he's convincing as the magnetic interloper whose presence has such a potent effect.

Eric Sleichim provides a rich if blunt sound design, from judiciously deployed opera and swelling music to match the swell of a dreamlike ocean to a subtly maddening soundscape of dripping water and buzzing insects: the stifling, inescapable claustrophobia of the sun-baked small town.

Jan Versweyveld's deliberately bare set evokes the Barbican's Brutalist architecture and makes a virtue of its cavernous stage. He creates a yawning distance between Hanna, trapped behind a counter, and her boorish husband, and places focus on the elemental: washing, dressing, the serving of food. A phantom accordion plays on its own, and - a neat solution to staging car crashes - a suspended engine splutters smoke and fatally splatters oil.

Yet van Hove's preference for abstraction, rather than Visconti's realism, proves problematic. Rather than amplifying the primal, it distances us and sets the story adrift: melodrama untethered by place or time. Without a specific setting, Gino's urge for freedom feels less to do with social conformity, more a misogynist comment on liberated men trapped by seductive women into repressive domesticity. In aiming for tragic inevitability, the tale becomes predictable - funereal even before the first spark of desire.

Obsession at the Barbican until 20 May, with a live cinema broadcast on 11 May

Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld

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From This Author Marianka Swain

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