Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Ivo van Hove’s Obsession starring Jude Law – review round-up

Halina Reijn and Jude Law in Obsession at the Barbican, London. Photo: JanVersweyveld
by -

Barely a month after the theatrical earthquake of Roman Tragedies, Ivo van Hove returns to the Barbican with Obsession, an adaptation of the 1943 Luchino Visconti neo-realist film Ossessione about the violent, destructive fallout from a passionate love affair.

The second of three productions in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s 2017 residency, Obsession stars Jude Law – who hasn’t been seen on the London stage since his Henry V in 2013 – as Gino, a charismatic drifter whose urgent attraction to the unhappily married wife of a brutish roadside innkeeper drives them both to commit murder, only to find themselves trapped in a blood-lined love-nest of their own making.

Van Hove again collaborates with long-term partner and designer Jan Versweyveld, with whom he has produced some of the boldest and most controversial productions of recent years, from the Young Vic’s A View From the Bridge in 2014, to the National’s recently-closed Hedda Gabler.

Has this prolific hot-shot Belgian director done it again? Or has he blotted his purple patch with Italian ink? Does Jude Law live up to his billing? Or is this an example of star-casting gone awry?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews. 

Obsession – The Italian job

Obsession uses an English text by Simon Stephens, worked from a Dutch version by Jan Peter Gerrits, of Visconti’s 1943 film, itself based on James M Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. What does this hand-me-down chain of adaptation become in Van Hove’s hands?

Nothing particularly special, it seems. Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) describes how Van Hove and Versweyveld “abstract the story from reality”. “Played without an interval and running at more than 100 minutes,” he observes, “it becomes a psychological study in erotic obsession but with none of Visconti’s atmospheric detail”.

“Something has been lost in the transition from screen to stage,” concurs Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★). “There’s a weird sense of detachment to the whole production, a coolness. The dialogue is sparse and there are a couple of moments that border on the daft.”

Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★) agrees. “The atmosphere is cold and disengaged,” he asserts, “and the script is trite and mired in cliche. Instead of an intoxicating experience, we’re left with something coolly stylish and portentous”.

“The dialogue is sparse and melodramatic, designed for screen, not theatre,” explains Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★). “The lack of depth to the adaptation also means Obsession fails to really interrogate the film’s politics, meaning it’s in real danger of coming across as a bit of a meninist bleat about an innocent bloke who falls prey of scheming women desperately trying to cage his rugged spirit, etc etc.”

Similar sentiments, pointing towards a production hindered by a conceptual flaw, litter other reviews, Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★) confessing himself “not sure the feeling of abstraction works for a piece that is so sweatily soaked in realism”, and Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★) condemning it as “ripely pretentious twaddle”.

Praise can only be found in scraps, it seems, Jenny Gilbert (The Arts Desk, ★★★) opining that van Hove’s “anti-naturalism serves him well in delivering the plot” and Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times) writing that Van Hove is “tremendously successful” in “mapping characters’ inner geography.”

“It feels a little bit like Van Hove is running low on ideas,” notes Tripney. “There are moments here reminiscent of the most problematic bits of his recent Hedda Gabler with none of that production’s ability to grip.”

Ann Treneman (Times, ★★) meanwhile, ponders just how Van Hove has “created something pretentious and quite ordinary” and observes that “Lazarus, the Bowie musical that he directed, also had this wilful vacantness”.

Obsession – The engine room

Van Hove and Versweyveld have become known for their minimalist sets – as in A View From The Bridge and Hedda Gabler – and heavy use of live video – as in Kings Of War and Roman Tragedies. Is Obsession similarly staged, or does it break the mould?

“The production has the stylish aestheticism that we have come to expect,” answers Billington. “There is no specific locale and the stage is largely bare except for a motor-engine, a water-tank and perspex-windowed doors.”

“Odd bits of kit enliven the scene,” adds Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★). “An automated accordion on its own perch, a suspended hunk of car engine (which, in lieu of the black and white film’s car-crashes, symbolically crushes the relevant parties and gunks out oil too), oh and concealed treadmills upon which the adulterous pair pound in evocation of futile flight.”

It’s definitely Van Hove/Versweyveld then, with a few curious adornments, but does this sparse aesthetic convey the same intensity it did in A View From The Bridge and Hedda Gabler? Or does it just add to the production’s problems?

On that, the critics are divided. For Hitchings, “visually the production is either bland or ugly, except when adorned with exaggeratedly romantic projections of seascapes”, but for Treneman, “the huge stage is used well, the backdrops of brown and grey perfect for ominous shadows and slow-mo filmed close-ups.”

Nick Wells (Radio Times, ★★★), like most, tends to agree with Hitchings. “At times the vast Barbican stage feels like too large a canvas,” he writes, adding that “you can’t help but wonder if the play might benefit from a more claustrophobic space.”

There’s more disagreement about the sound design, Lukowski labelling it “ravishing, a watery world of drips and ticks, feverish bursts of opera and glistening slews electronics” but Fergus Morgan (Exeunt) dismissing it as “more annoying than anything else, reaching for a totally undeserved epic-ness but actually serving only to disguise the drama’s glaring absence of depth.

Obsession – Law-abiding citizens

Law’s Gino is joined on stage by Halina Reijn as cooped-up femme fatale Hannah, and Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Hanna’s potty-mouthed pig of a husband. Can the trio salvage something from Stephens’ script, or do they sink along with it?

Law – the big draw here, lest we forget – is well received all round, Tripney calling him “easily the best thing” about van Hove’s production.

“He is magnificent,” confirms Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★), “and somehow snatches from the overweening directorial pretensions a genuinely felt performance of young Gino’s passion, poverty, damaged emotional confusion, baffled remorse and mournful yearning for the simplicities of the road.”

“He is better at anger and desperation than love,” contends Sarah Crompton (What’sOnStage, ★★★), “but touchingly reveals a dreadful self-knowledge as he realises he is trapped by a web of his own making.”

“Not only does he have the gym-buffed torso of a model,” gasps Cavendish, “but that aliveness of look, that manly-boyish, angel-devil aura, which makes you follow him, fixate on his every restless, prowling move.”

“He is beautifully matched by his partner-in-crime,” chimes Billington, a sentiment matched by Taylor, who lauds Reijn’s performance as “extraordinarily uninhibited”.

Reijn is largely praised all round, in fact, the only repeatedly observed bum note in her performance a moment when she symbolically hurls rubbish across the stage, a deafening echo of Ruth Wilson’s flower-throwing in Hedda Gabler and a device that “tips into the comical”, according to Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★).

There’s plenty of admiration for Van Aschat, too, Swain labelling his husband “effectively nasty” and Crompton lauding “a performance of compelling unpleasantness”.

Obsession – Is it any good?

This isn’t van Hove’s best work, by any stretch of the imagination. A lone four-star from the Financial Times is conspicuous among a sea of twos and threes, and most praise in those is reserved for the impressive Jude Law and his co-stars.

Has he lost his touch? It seems unlikely, most critics willing to dismiss Obsession as a disappointing blip in an otherwise exceptional string of productions, a rare instance his unique conceptual approach has muddied, rather than clarified a text. Time Out’s Lukowski even observes on Twitter that it might be for the best that Van Hove is seen “as mercurial and fallible rather than some indestructible euromessiah.”

And there’s ample opportunity for him to make up for lost ground: he directs the third and final instalment of Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Barbican residency, After the Rehearsal/Persona, in September, and takes the helm of Network at the NT is November.

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.