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The Damned review at the Barbican, London – ‘Ivo van Hove’s staging is flashy but fruitless’

Loïc Corbery and Adeline d'Hermy in The Damned (Les Damnés) at the Barbican Theatre, London. Photo: Jan Verswevyeld
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Prolific Belgian super-director Ivo van Hove has two modes. There’s accessible Ivo, who radically modernises classic plays – Ibsen, Shakespeare, Schiller and Miller – in thrilling, experimental stagings. And there’s self-indulgent, inaccessible Ivo, who transmogrifies mid-20th-century arthouse films for the theatre, with distinctly less electrifying results. Les Damnés – or The Damned in English – falls into the latter category.

It’s an adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film of the same name, which follows an influential industrialist family in 1930s Germany as they tear themselves apart during the rise of the Third Reich. Van Hove’s staging, created with Paris’ Comédie-Française in 2016 and performed in French (with English surtitles), is a sprawling, two-hour, no-interval epic set in a solemn historical context. But for all its bells and whistles, it doesn’t really resonate.

The Essenbeck family are all stakeholders in a successful steelmaking company. In 1933, on the night of the famous Reichstag fire, the paterfamilias is murdered, and the clan’s descent into politicking, power games and paedophilia begins. Notorious Nazi atrocities – book burnings, the Night of the Long Knives, the opening of Dachau – are interspersed with family fights and furious rows.

Harrowing stuff, but – sacrilege perhaps – Visconti’s portrait of a society falling apart in the face of fascism doesn’t actually involve much insight. And used as a metaphor for Europe’s current climate, as van Hove clearly intends it here, it feels blunt and unsophisticated – the theatrical equivalent of that boring dinner party guest that points out similarities between Nigel Farage and the Nazis. Hasn’t Van Hove heard of Godwin’s Law?

All the tricks in the Van Hove playbook are used to spice things up. A wide, open stage with no walls. A sorrowful, clarinet-heavy score. Characters getting doused in viscous liquids. Live video feeds being relayed to the audience via a huge screen. Violence against women. Here though, as they did with Van Hove’s last Visconti adaptation Obsession, they seem like window dressing. Magic to mask the mediocrity.

There are still some extraordinary moments – a homosexual orgy in a stew of soapy liquid that morphs into a mass murder, a game of hide-and-seek throughout the theatre that turns very nasty – but there are also tasteless ones: the use of German heavy metal music behind genuine photos of Dachau seems offensive in the extreme.

The large French cast is fairly flawless, though, as you’d expect from an ensemble as esteemed as the Comédie-Française. Particularly good are Loïc Corbery’s Herbert, a man with proud principles, and Christophe Montenez’s Martin, a man with none whatsoever. But they’re serving a show that prioritises style over substance. If A View from the Bridge and Roman Tragedies were Van Hove at his best, The Damned is him at his worst: flashy, but fruitless.

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A typically flashy staging of Luchino Visconti’s film by Ivo van Hove that lacks any real resonance