When Love Plays Out Like a Greek Tragedy: Obsession

OBSESSION playbill

OBSESSION playbill. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

Theater Review by Katherine Valdez

Is love enough?

Yes. No.

Well, it’s complicated.

That’s the theme – and the wild ride of emotions that accompanies it – explored in Obsession, conceived and directed by Ivo van Hove, based on the film by Luchino Visconti.

The play premiered at the Barbican Theatre in London on April 25 and I was lucky enough to see it a few days later during my first “holiday” in the U.K.

I wasn’t familiar with Visconti’s film but that was just as well since I prefer going to movies and plays with a clean-slate mind unmarred by spoilers. Obsession impressed me. It was intense, and amazing. A second viewing a couple of weeks later, this time at a live broadcast in a Boulder movie theater, revealed subtleties I had missed the first time.

In a taped interview before the main broadcast, Dutch director van Hove said “There is a feeling of Greek tragedy in Obsession...” What appealed to him, he says in the program notes, is “It looks at us humans in a very basic way.” Footage of rehearsals revealed the director urging the two main actors to “go on, go on!” as they embrace during one tense moment that turns passionate.

The opening scene shows a woman named Hanna (played by Halina Reijn) sitting on top of a bar in a small Italian town, idly filing her nails. The place is empty except for her husband, Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat), the bar owner who is on his back fixing a car, represented by an engine suspended from the ceiling. Hanna is much younger than her husband. They don’t talk.

Then a handsome drifter named Gino (Jude Law) walks in, playing “This Land is Your Land” on the harmonica.

Need I say more?

I must confess: Jude Law was the main reason I wanted to see this play. I mean, Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, right? Bradley Fine is Spy opposite Melissa McCarthy! Not to mention Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr.

Obsession starring Jude Law

Poster at the Barbican Theatre in London. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

My partner, Kit, however, considered the work of Dutch director van Hove – celebrated and world-renowned – as the main attraction. (Read Kit’s blog post on the play here.)

Fair enough. But I think Kit’s sister and I were of like mind, because she rushed to buy us tickets for the almost-sold-out performance. Jenny lives in London, and this was to be our first meeting. What better way to become acquainted than discussing Jude Law’s performance? (And pecs. He takes off his shirt in a couple of scenes). The young woman sitting next to us in the balcony had come all the way from Spain to see Jude. She would’ve agreed.

Differences between seeing the play at the Barbican Theatre and watching the broadcast surprised me. I’d assumed the broadcast would show the play from a camera in a fixed location. But it featured several vantage points from the left and right sides of the stage, plus a wide shot. Certain scenes were best viewed close up, such as the subtleties of Hanna’s expression when she first sees Gino, which I missed the first time around.

Later scenes, such as when a huge section of the stage rises up to reveal a video of ocean waves – a symbol of Gino’s desire for freedom – had more of an impact when I saw it sitting in the Barbican Theatre. (During the broadcast, I silently urged the camera operator to “pull back, pull back!” so we could see a wider view.)

Other props were impressive. An accordion suspended above the stage playing a whimsical tune that turns sinister. A hardwood treadmill embedded in the stage floor that Hanna and Gino run on as they escape Hanna’s stifling hometown. Wall-size video screens that show a front view of the actors while they’re running with their backs to the audience.

But the set is secondary to the actors’ riveting performances. At one point early on, Hanna asks Gino, her voice urgent: Can you love me? Can you love me and not need anything else?

He answers “Yes,” and the scene is made more poignant by the heavenly voices of Verdi’s Requiem. This musical leitmotif punctuates a later scene, one that is bittersweet, when the audience has a better idea of how Hanna and Gino’s story will end.

Is love enough? Yes. No.

One thing is certain. Obsession challenges audiences to meditate on what their heart truly desires, and warns them to choose wisely.

Or suffer the consequences.

Obsession, based on the film by Luchino Visconti. Directed by Ivo van Hove, April 19-May 20, 2017. World premiere: April 25, 2017. Produced by Barbican Theatre Productions Limited and Toneelgroep Amsterdam.

Katherine Valdez initially declined her companion’s offer to wait for Jude Law to emerge from the Barbican Theatre’s stage door after the closing curtain. But Jenny was deftly persuasive. While Mr. Law’s autograph remained an elusive treasure, they had quite a nice chat with a couple of crew members.

Follow her Secrets of Best-Belling Authors blog at www.KatValdezWriter.wordpress.com, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Goodreads, and Medium.

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