Ivo van Hove is the most stylish theatre director working today. His run of hits include the deliciously dark Hedda Gabler, the hallucinatory Lazarus, and his exceptional Antigone (also staged at the Barbican). His latest production, Obsession starring Jude Law, carries his unmistakable visual flair, but it’s a disjointed affair, filled with gambles that don’t quite pay off, not quite up there with his best work.
One of those gambles is Law himself, upon whose broad shoulders is placed a vast weight of expectation. His part is subtle, psychological, his character pushed to the brink of madness by his obsession for a woman he barely knows. Law brings a shouty physicality to the role, but his delivery is often one dimensional, lacking the deftness of touch to make his character's slow-motion breakdown plausible, and he’s badly outshone by his excellent co-star Halina Reijn.
Adapted from Visconti’s 1943 film Ossessione, it’s a complex, often experimental production in which time and place are so malleable they cease to be of much importance at all: seconds become hours, minutes bleed into days, while the sparse stage, empty but for a wrecked car dangling from the ceiling, shifts imperceptibly from bar to crowded square to dusty road.
The story – loosely based on The Postman Always Rings Twice – follows Gino, a drifter who stumbles upon a bar, where he offers to fix the proprietor’s car in exchange for food. He falls for the owner’s beautiful young wife, a caged bird desperate to escape her husband’s stultifying presence.
Van Hove has worked on films and opera, and his catholic tastes are visible here. Projections – some filmed live – add a cinematic quality to the action, while the use of faint, droning chords in the background give the production the air of a David Lynch movie, helped along by the surreal moments when characters burst into song. Other conceits work less-well, such as the tread-mill on stage that his characters pelt down in a fruitless bid to escape their lives.
In the end, there are too many clever pauses that lead nowhere, too many dud lines that highlight the lack of chemistry between the two leads. Van Hove could make drying paint into riveting theatre, but we've been trained to expect more of him.