James M Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice has been adapted into two Hollywood films noir of the same name, but it is the 1943 Italian version, Ossessione, the first feature directed by Luchino Visconti that provides the inspiration for Ivo van Hove in this production, an import from Toneelgroep Amsterdam.
van Hove has made his name in London by reimagining plays by the likes of Miller and Ibsen, but here he cuts himself adrift from classic texts and turns to reinventing the work of a fellow director in another medium. When Robert Icke directed the noir thriller The Red Barn in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, similar in size and shape to the Barbican, he made his production feel cinematic by closing down spaces, but van Hove and his set designer, Jan Versweyveld, go in the opposite direction, acknowledging that this is about turning cinema into theatre. They open out the entire wide space and litter it with a few curious objects – a tin bath, a car engine and a piano accordion that plays itself – but some cinematic features remain – moving images projected onto large screen surrounding the stage and a prominent musical soundtrack that ranges from Giuseppe Verdi to Woody Guthrie. As always with van Hove, there is something to engage the eye and the ear even when the drama itself is flagging.
There is also a plot, which, at times, feels almost incidental. Hanna (Halina Reijn) is trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man, Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) when a rootless drifter, Gino (Jude Law) walks into the cafe/petrol station that they run jointly. There follows adultery, murder and guilt. A gay drifter, Johnny (Robert de Hoog) and a dancer, Anita (Aysha Kala) try to lure Gino away once he has himself started to feel trapped, while a priest and a police inspector (both Chukwudi Iwuji) press for the truth to emerge. Law shows the inner weakness of the outwardly macho Gino and Reijn smoulders as the repressed Hanna, but, between them, they struggle to generate passion on this vast empty stage.
Obsession is a classic crime passionnel drama, but, in terms of meeting the expectations of theatre, the dialogue is little better than perfunctory and the production misses the claustrophobic feeling needed to support a story in which characters feel boxed in. On this occasion, perhaps van Hove’s obsession with creating innovative theatre drowns out key elements needed to bring out the essence of Visconti’s original work convincingly.
Performance date: 27 April 2017