There’s little in the way of irony and subversion in Ivo van Hove’s take on Ayn Rand’s hymn to individualism. This 2014 production, making its UK premiere at the Manchester International Festival, is a four-hour account of Rand’s 1943 novel about Howard Roark, an uncompromising architect who despises all forms of incompetence and mediocrity. Everything is secondary to the integrity of his vision.
He’s pitched against fellow architect Peter Keating (Aus Greidanus Jr, needy, sweaty, achingly desperate), someone who coasts on the genius of others – a parasite in Rand’s eyes, a lesser being. The dialogue between the communal and the individual is encapsulated in the figure of Ellsworth Toohey, a socialist newspaper columnist (played by Bart Slegers) who comes across as one of the most insincere and insidious characters in the piece.
This is all beautifully performed. There’s a sense that everyone in the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam ensemble is completely in sync. Ramsey Nasr is suitably emotionless without being robotic; there’s precision and wit in his performance. The majestic Hans Kesting is charismatic and complicated as newspaper magnate Gail Wynand.
Van Hove’s creative collaborator Jan Versweyveld has created a vast, pristine space, there’s live piano accompaniment, and cameras mounted on the ceiling capture in detail the architects at work. There’s a lot of focus on drawing, on sketching in charcoal and in ink, the shading of negative space. This is oddly mesmeric to watch and one of the most entrancing things in the production. Throughout Van Hove seems to equate Roarke’s hostility to any form of compromise to the plight of the artist – but this feels like a dated and gendered take.
The sex scenes are equally hard to stomach. The character of Dominique Francon (played by the excellent Halina Reijn) sees what she terms “enraptured surrender” as her role. She believes men like Roarke require offerings. She becomes flesh to these men, a thing to be bartered. In one scene she’s forcibly penetrated, splayed and naked. It’s an ugly moment, as is the suggestion she’s cured of her rigidity through rape. There’s no room for tenderness in Rand’s world; love is equated with weakness.
The production contains its fair share extraordinary moments; the scene in which a social housing project is dynamited deploys wind fans and video to potent effect. There’s also what feels like a (very gentle) sense of interrogation as Roarke delivers his final screed.
Despite a few talky longueurs, the production never drags and there’s a case to be made for straightforwardly engaging with Rand’s work, if only because her ideas remain so influential. The number of politicians who claim to admire her, Trump among them, is large and the world is not short of men who think of themselves as visionaries and use this as an excuse to justify their behaviour.
But while it’s possible to appreciate the immense skill on display, the technical excellence and intricate performances, the whole thing left me feeling distinctly queasy.