When the slow ascension of a projector screen from the floor of the stage is the most exciting thing to happen in a story about a passionate and destructive sexual relationship, something’s gone seriously amiss.
Obsession is one of three Toneelgroep Amsterdam productions directed by Ivo van Hove to be staged at the Barbican this year, following the return of the six-hour Shakespeare-quake that was Roman Tragedies.
It’s based on Luchino Visconti’s 1942 film, which is itself based on James M Cain’s novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Van Hove clearly has a bit of a thing for the work of Visconti and has adapted a number of his films for the stage.
Jude Law plays Gino, a sexy drifter in search of work. Gus Scholten van Achat’s Joseph offers him a place to stay if he can fix his car but Gino is far more interested in the man’s much younger wife, Hanna, played Halina Reijn. The minute Joseph’s back is turned they’re peeling off each other’s clothes and talking about running away with one another.
But something has been lost in the transition from screen to 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.
Jan Versweyveld’s set is basically a big grey box onto which close ups of people’s faces and other body parts are occasionally projected. In the centre of the stage a car engine hangs from the ceiling, looking a little like a heart. During the scene in which Gino and Hanna dispose of Joseph, black liquid spouts from it onto the floor.
It feels a little bit like Van Hove is running low on ideas. There are moments here reminiscent of the most problematic bits of his recent Hedda Gabler with none of that production’s ability to grip. Reijn does this strange litter dance where she flings rubbish about the stage, crawls on her hands and knees a lot, and – sigh – ends up stripped to her knickers for a scene where she and Gino take a bath together.
There’s an unintentionally silly bit when Law tries to flee but ends up running on the spot on an asthmatic travelator. And some of the lines in Simon Stephens’ translation sit about as easily in the mouth as those rock-hard toffees that everyone avoids in boxes of Quality Street.
While Law is a more than capable stage actor – he’s easily the best thing in this – the material does him no favours. Reijn is similarly hobbled and like Ruth Wilson’s Hedda she ends up prone and bespattered (but at least not spat upon this time).
Crucially, there’s no sense of sexual charge here, no sense of heat, need, or claustrophobia. I’ve been exhilarated and thrilled by Van Hove’s work before – hell, I even rather liked his meditative Antigone – and I’ve been frustrated and angered by it too. But I’ve never been bored by it before.