BWW Review: THE DAMNED, Barbican Theatre
It took nearly two decades for the Comédie-Française, the oldest theatre company in the world, to come back to the UK. Now, they invade the Barbican stage with Ivo van Hove at the helm to deliver his own acclaimed, thrilling vision of Luchino Visconti's The Damned.
Presenting it in French with English surtitles, the Belgian director takes the tale of ambition, toxic politics, and the unhealthy desire for power and applies his own brand of theatrical artifice to it. The Essenbecks are a powerful family of industrialists who have started an alarming partnership with the Nazis. When the Reichstag fire breaks out, they begin their descent handling political differences, dubious alliances, and a displaying chilling subjugation to power and wealth.
Nicola Baducco's original screenplay has gone through some dramaturgical rework by Bart Van den Eynde but Visconti's brutal image remains strong in van Hove production by virtue of his specific style. The adaptation is intense and striking, shocking and detailed in its disinhibition. He guts the magnificence of the Barbican's own main stage, baring its very architecture and putting its skeleton on show.
The result is a gargantuan, engulfing space used with cleverness. He dislocates the action and plays with reality using a live camera feed to differentiate between what the audience is able to see in front of them, should they be willing to let their eyes roam from the towering screen upstage, and what is shown to them.
Brief looks and cross glances assume crucial meaning on the backdrop of the show's controlled visual activity. The disturbing displays of intimacy are magnified, as is the chillingly modern political discourse. The director's evocative visuals and shock value are turned up a notch here as van Hove uses Jan Versweyveld's set and lighting design to gamble with the suspension of disbelief.
He drags the audience out of their bubble using cold house lights and cameras angled towards the seats to make them present in the plot and liable in its outcome. The performances are astounding. At heart, The Damned is an immense ensemble piece with a stunning cohesion of talent. Christophe Montenez is terrific as Martin von Essenbeck, the heir to the throne of the steel empire. He grapples through the rapid changes in leadership maintaining a strong grip on the rope.
Elsa Lepoivre is glacially authoritative as his mother, who toys with the men's ambition dominating the scene with weaponised sexuality. Guillaume Gallienne (Friedrich), Denis Podalydès (Konstantin), Loïc Corbery (Herbert), Éric Génovèse (Wolf von Aschenbach) are electric as the main male presences; the ascent to power of Visconti's characters and their subsequent downfall is epic in their hands. It also sees a heartbreaking performance by Clément Hervieu-Léger as young Gunther von Essenbeck, the mistreated boy with a passion for playing the clarinet.
The cast build up the atmosphere of doom and magnetic energy in tight collaboration with the camera operators, delivering an earth-shattering experience rather than a simple frontal play. Depictions of humiliation, perversion, nudity, and greed are interwoven in the political texture, which looks eerily modern in its essence.
The allegoric elements of the story are hard to swallow, especially paired with the vivid physical imagery used by the director. It's safe to say that van Hove is certainly not shooting blanks this time around.
Photo credit: Jan Verswevyeld