With his reimagining of Luchino Visconti’s 1943 Italian feature Ossessione, itself an adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, director Ivo van Hove attempts to strip the film down to its essential parts and reconstruct on the Barbican’s stage as Obsession, the story of vagabond Gino (Jude Law) and downtrodden provincial wife Hannah (Halina Reijn), who conspire to murder the latter’s overbearing husband (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) and start a new life together.
On the sparsely decorated set, we see a woman sitting on a kitchen counter near an enormous haunch of raw meat. She is tending absentmindedly to her fingernails, while her husband tinkers with an engine suspended perilously over his supine figure, stage left. The scene is scored by the maddening sound of a dripping tap. From upstage, a warm glow lights up the empty space between husband and wife, and seems to suggest some imminent arrival — indeed, a scraggly fellow soon appears, playing a curious tune on a harmonica, and demands food. It transpires that the bare set represents a bar, recalling the film’s original setting. The evocative beginning promises much, but alas, this production trips over its own High Art aspirations and collapses into a heap of disjointed exchanges and confusing imagery very quickly.
The spark between Gino and Hannah is immediately apparent, thanks to the kind of lingering, fiery look employed throughout the piece whenever a character takes a merciful break from stilted dialogue like ‘What’s the deal with you?’, ‘If we take care of each other, everything will be all right’ and ‘What are you even doing here, Hannah?’ — the latter of which seems an odd question to ask of a woman you’ve known a mere few minutes, until we realise the play relies on some significant jumps in time to fit the whole narrative into a running time of under two hours. The play must have one of the shortest-ever preludes to the big romantic ‘Come Away with Me’ ever, and it should be noted that most of the problems faced by this production are a direct result of the script’s pacing problems and painfully forced dialogue. (At one point, Gino asks Hannah in an exasperated tone, ‘Have you heard yourself speak?’ One wonders whether the writers could have ruminated on this question a bit more before handing in their finished product.)
The moments of physical theatre quickly become the best thing about the play, as Gino and Hannah perform a shadowy, ritualistic dance, where his grimy hands feel their way across her pale body. Suddenly, the play turns into a contemporary movement piece accompanied by drawling accordion, and one has to wonder whether this approach wouldn’t have been preferable throughout. Gino’s post-coital re-dressing of Hannah is a touching moment to witness, and even in its choreographed precision seems far more believable than much of the preceding and following verbal interaction.
It is unclear whether the acting in this production suffers because of insufficient guidance from Van Hove (who seems to have allowed much of the dialogue to be delivered too earnestly and deliberately), or because many of the actors are not native English speakers.
Robert de Hoog, who plays the artist Johnny, delivers his lines in a rehearsed, wooden way that suggests the actor and the English language have only recently been acquainted. (Having actors perform in a second language can work beautifully, of course, but in this case, a lot does seem to be lost in translation as the players mislay emphases and ignore rhythm.) Reijn pulls off the scheming, bored wife convincingly, but her unease with the dialogue and foreign idiom betray her at times. (This could, naturally, also be blamed on the quality of the writing.) Van Aschat embodies the boorish husband with gusto, and his enthusiastic performance at the amateur operatic competition is sure to elicit a few smiles from weary audience members.
Law bravely attempts to keep the whole thing together, and one can’t help wondering how he got into this situation in the first place. His performance is compelling, though, and he manages to free a lot of human emotion trapped in the stodgy text and share some real moments with the audience. (His delivery of ‘I’m not scared of running a bar; I’m scared of living a dead man’s life’ comes to mind.) The same goes for Chukwudi Iwuji, who plays the priest and the inspector, but especially shines as the latter. The interrogation scene where his inspector attempts to trap the lying lovers is the most satisfying part of the entire play, as the quick-fire dialogue and generous back-and-forth between Iwuji, Law, and Reijn deliver the suspense and tension that have thus far been mostly absent from the piece.
Perhaps one of the more baffling directorial decisions is the one that sees first Gino and later the two lovers literally run away upstage — on a treadmill built into the floor. No amount of suspense-building music or evocative lighting could save these overlong, unnecessary, and frankly confounding scenes. Then there’s the death orgy garnished with engine oil, the introduction of a nymphish new character (Aysha Kala) in the third act who manages to create some kind of unfathomable innuendo involving milk, and Reijn’s truly startling rendition of ‘Tu es etrangère’ accompanied by an alarming garbage-hurling montage.
‘This time last year, I was in the mountains,’ Law’s character sighs towards the end of the piece. Despite the play’s redeeming qualities, the audience would be forgiven for silently wishing Gino had stayed where he was.
Obsession is a Barbican Centre and Toneelgroep Amsterdam co-production, and is broadcast as part of the National Theatre Live series. Watch it at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront on the 24th, 25th, 28th, and 29th of June. Tickets are available at www.sterkinekor.co.za.