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Obsession

Liza Dezfouli

Director Ivo van Hove returns to National Theatre Live with Obsession.
Obsession

Image: Jude Law and Halina Reijn in Obsession. Photograph by Jan Versweyveld.

Jude Law. Say no more.

National Theatre Live brings us Obsession, a play inspired by a film that was also inspired by a novel.

The novel is The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain and in 1943 Italian film-maker Luchino Visconti released his cinematic version, Obsessione (which was banned twice after its original release) due partly to its realistic style which was new to film at the time.

When it comes to National Theatre Live’s Obsession, the story unfolds with the boy-meets-married-girl story.

The intense sexual attraction of the leading characters is brought to the stage by Belgian director Ivo van Hove with Jude Law in the role of Gino and Giovanna played by Halina Reijn.

The affair between Gino and Giovanna takes place in a deadened environment where their attraction consumes all the available oxygen. Gino doesn’t want domesticity; Giovanna doesn’t want the financial instability of his vagabond lifestyle.

The simple set with stark symbolic items (a slab of meat, a treadmill in the floor, a truck engine suspended overhead, a simple shower pump and glass doors to the outside world) reminds us of poverty and the limitations of social structures and the bleak institution of marriage.

The non-identifying small town environment work to restrain the spirits of both the lead characters.

This story is a version of the old-fashioned complaint of how loving a woman destroys a man’s freedom and choices, tames his essential wildness and confines him to a cage.

We appreciate with modern eyes the cage in which Giovanna is imprisoned – she has dragged herself out of poverty by marrying Sam although she loathes him (with good reason of course). She and Gino are stuck with their love that can go nowhere. Gino leaves, meets another woman Anita (Ayahsa Kala) and a man named Johhny (Robert De Hoog), who both respectively offer him different lives but his attachment to Gina sends him back to her.

Gino and Giovanna later take an opportunity to rid themselves of Sam although this act ultimately destroys them. Here is when things become positively Shakespearean. Giovanna’s obnoxious husband Sam is played to sinister effect by Gijs Scholten van Aschat. With Chukwadi Iwuji doing a double turn as a policeman and a priest.

Van Hove uses minimal dialogue to get the story across – intimacy is rapidly established with body language, tension and emotional presence. The production relies more on the energy between the actors along with carefully constructed choreography rather than action or utterance to create closeness.

The intensity is palpable throughout (mostly) and there are few welcome moments of lightness; when not thrumming with sexual desire the stage vibrates with a menacing sense of gasping repression.

Even with physical distance between them it is as though Gina and Giovanna are bound together with psychic versions of heavy duty zip ties. Despite this though, there were moments when my attention drifted, as the pace seemed to stagnate but I was quickly hauled back into the story by the music – a vital presence by composer Eric Sleichim.

Despite the visual and auditory clichés of the final scene it does work gloriously – van Hove pulls off something which would hardly have been convincing on paper and difficult to portray on the screen.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Obsession 

Produced by Barbican Theatre Productions Limited, London and Toneelgroep Amsterdam; co-commissioned by Wiener Festwochen and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg; co-produced by Holland Festival and David Binder Productions; and supported by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Liza Dezfouli reviews live performance and film. She's an avid arts glutton who's consistently thrilled by the talent abounding in this good city of Melbourne.

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