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Obsession (Barbican Theatre)

May 3, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 29th April 2017)

The vast open space – realistic sounding but unrealistically leaky (nobody gets burned or blinded by the oil it pours) central suspended engine, bar on one side, washing trough on the other, screens either side and around – actually suits this play. For each central character is lost in a wilderness, and all lack a compass both personal and moral to find a way through life.

Or is it death? They happen in the play, but my argument is that the three central protagonists – drifter Gino (Jude Law), and bar-owning husband and wife Hanna (Halina Reijn) and Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) are long since dead already. Walking corpses, Gino keeps moving to avoid his repression, Hanna her tolerance of a man just to keep herself housed and Joseph his denial.

The toxicity of this trio should have been the key to a sharp and thrilling drama. Instead, the pervading death keeps things at dead walking pace, without revelation or inferno. There’s more drama as Gino encounters fellow drifter Johnny (Robert de Hoog), with an intriguing bi-sexuality or even outright declaration thread left hanging annoyingly. On the other hand, the arrival of Anita (Aysha Kala) could either have been a deliberate attempt at introducing life to highlight the contrasting deadness – or maybe confirm that the sexuality question was going nowhere.

Sadly, in this production, quite a lot doesn’t – despite the peculiar use of a treadmill for “Doctor Who” style athletics. Couples drift and undrift in circles, Chukwudi Iwuji builds the most convincing characters of all, as Priest and Police Inspector. The dead die or don’t, the disappointingly expected happens just when you hoped the writing would avoid shaking its credibility – and the actors play on as best they can.

Like all Ivo van Hove works, it’s impressive in scope, the economy of the staging and sparse use of artifice, even as the whole feels more dreamlike than dramatic, are enough to keep interest going. New moments recover attention around an hour in when act two flags, for sure, but the feeling that there is a shorter and tighter experience to be had remains, lush Tal Yarden video alas included.

Unlikely that a more stylish production nor cohesive small cast will emerge this year, nor that van Hove will be challenged much for his reputation, but this lacks a little of the careful text edit he is known for. Still a darkness worth exploring, but not an entirely compelling one.

3 and a half stars.

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For those planning to go to the Barbican, I’d also rate the current exhibition in their art gallery “The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945” as a fascinating visit. Do pre-book, though, as lines are massive after matinee / before evening performances and throughout the weekends in particular.

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