Una sola occhiata

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 05.05.2017

As soon as people found out that Jude Law would be on stage at our Grand Théâtre, tickets started selling like hot cakes. At the end of June he will be topping the bill in Ivo van Hove’s stage version of Ossessione, Luchino Visconti’s 1943 film. The show has just opened in London and features a company of both British and Dutch actors. It is van Hove’s fourth adaptation of Visconti’s work.

He starts from the neorealist (or pre-neorealist) black-and-white film, which is itself based on the 1934 American thriller, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. Visconti took the text and turned it into a very Italian story of passion and murder. Not surprisingly, the Fascists found Ossessione so upsetting that they banned it. Vittorio Mussolini, the dictator’s son, famously stormed out of the Rome premiere, shouting: “This is not Italy.”

There is the busy roadside trattoria serving steaming dishes of pasta, there is the local priest going fishing when he has no funeral or christening to attend to and there are the trips to both Ancona and Ferrara… Layers upon layers of narrative set personal freedom against convention, restlessness against domesticity. The long dusty roads in the windswept Po valley may lead you anywhere!

What van Hove has done in Obsession is strip the plot free from any clutter or local colour. The stage is a no man’s land, a huge space with a sculptural feel to it. There is a sleek showroom kitchen island, a washbasin, a car engine hanging above the stage and an automated accordion tumbling from the ceiling.

The bustle of the trattoria has been replaced by clinical coldness. Incidentally, the names of most of the characters have been changed. In-between serving at table and doing the dishes, Hanna (Halina Reijn), the young wife of Joseph, (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) the boorish owner, sits on the counter, painting her toenails. In walks Gino (Jude Law), a handsome drifter looking for work. They instantly fall for each other and start a liaison behind the husband’s back. Van Hove turns the latter into a particularly gross figure who is constantly out to bully and humiliate his wife.

Yet when Gino and Hanna run away, she changes her mind as she lacks the courage to face the unknown and to abandon what has become her home. Safety matters to her more than anything else. So in the end he goes off by himself. But then chance intervenes. The three of them meet again in Ancona, and this time Gino and Hanna decide to act. Driven by their passion for each other, they swiftly stage Joseph’s murder.

And then, just like the Macbeths, they will forever be separated by the crime. Guilt and mutual recrimination take over. Joseph’s ghost may not appear as Banquo’s does in Shakespeare, but the experience is almost identical. What started off as a vision of a happy future together turns into a living nightmare. Gino feels trapped and used, while Hanna stands helplessly by, with nowhere to go.

Long pauses punctuate the evening; the dialogue has been cut down to essentials. Occasionally huge video images show bodies and faces in extreme close-ups that echo the camera work in Visconti’s film. The bare beauty of those projections fits the stylish production perfectly, but at times it all feels too analytical, too cerebral. As if life itself were on hold.

So, in spite of the beautiful acting, you come out somewhat underwhelmed – with powerful tableaux in your head, but disappointed by the occasional awkwardness and by too much melodrama.

Obsession is at the Barbican until May 20. It will be at the Grand Théâtre from June 23 to 25.

Janine Goedert
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