Like so many screenplays about familial decay, from Festen to The Godfather Part II to The Lion in Winter, Les Damnés begins with a party. It’s Joachim von Essenbeck’s birthday, and the old man – his face lined with gloomy fatalism – would like to make some announcements about the future of the steelworks that bear his name. It’s 1933, news of the Reichstag Fire comes through, and as the various family members are introduced to the audience, it quickly becomes apparent that a struggle of ambitions between the Essenbecks will take place as the Nazis consolidate power in the background.
Vying for Joachim’s steelworks are his middle-aged son Konstantin; Bruckmann, the lover of Sophie, Joachim’s eldest son’s devious widow; and Aschenbach, cousin of the clan and a member of the SS. Reluctant players are Herbert Thalmann, social democrat and Joachim’s son-in-law; Martin, a cross-dressing paedophile (played by Christophe Montenez, a dead ringer for Helmut Berger, who played Martin in the 1969 film of The Damned); and Konstantin’s son Günther. It is Martin and Günther who get sucked into the family business against their will, and prove respectively manipulative and manipulable.
The main flaw of the Barbican’s production, which is based on Luchino Visconti and Nicola Badalucco’s 1969 screenplay, is apparent in the opening scene. Ivo van Hove’s staging falls victim to the very trait its source excoriates: vaulting ambition. Throughout the play, a handheld camera – sometimes two – weaves among the characters and films the action on stage, live-streaming it onto an LED backdrop screen. It works conceptually: like a hall of mirrors, it ramps up the paranoia, heightens the almost gothic expressionism of the actors, and renders literal the notion that everyone has an angle. But it is, in dramatic terms, a touch too far.
If you are fully fluent in French – it is, after all, a Comédie-Française production, the company’s first in the UK for almost 20 years – this busyness won’t be much of an issue. But if you’re not, you’re watching the action on stage, you’re watching the action on screen (presented from endlessly evolving angles), and your eyes fly up every few seconds to devour the surtitles before they disappear. The dialogue is rapid, the characters numerous (there are more than 20 cast members), and not every viewer will have a working knowledge of things like the difference between the SA and the SS. It’s possible to keep a handle on who’s who and what’s going on, but doing the mental gymnastics while your eyes are in three places at once weakens the play’s emotional impact.
Its sensory impact, however, is hard to deny. Lighting designer and regular van Hove collaborator Jan Versweyveld eschews expressionism in favour of all-exposing light, weaponising Tal Yarden’s video design, while sound designer Eric Sleichim uses German music ranging from Rammstein (thematically appropriate, as an industrial metal group) to baroque masters Schütz and Buxtehude. Blood, beer and ashes are thrown about; Sophie is eventually slathered in a tarry mixture and covered in feathers; and the scene changes will make you jump at least once.
Excess, a favoured theme of chroniclers of interwar Germany, is a key theme of the play, and whether you think this production falls victim to this flaw too will depend on your appetite for choreographed chaos. Visconti loved a good symbolic party, and he would probably have admired this staging’s most ambitious set-piece: a fully naked danse macabre between Konstantin and a fellow SA member, surrounded behind them on the screen – in one of the moments where the screen portrays more than just the on-stage action – by a burgeoning 20-man orgy on the orange-checked floor. (According to Yarden, this orange floor symbolises “the bureaucratic machine of the State”; I’m not quite sure how.) The sequence is put to an end by men in black uniform and a bucket of blood: it’s the Night of the Long Knives.
Such physical theatricality is what we have come to expect from van Hove, and yet it is the limits of the physical that clearly preoccupy him. His transgression of such boundaries is thematic: characters’ deaths are symbolised by them being lain still alive in enclosed coffins, their anguished faces and silent screams captured by an in-coffin camera and broadcast on the screen, suggesting a bloody past that refuses to die. This is true to Visconti’s intended parallels between his screenplay and Macbeth; there are also definite shades of Richard III, though the evil here is pervasive rather than centralised.
In another striking set-piece, Sophie actually flees the theatre in a frantic search for her loved one, a cameraman following and broadcasting her on-screen as she darts among bemused Barbican punters in the foyer. It functions as a point of epiphanic disillusionment with the family’s disintegration, and yet its Brechtian wall-busting diffuses the emotion. Visconti was a master of concentrating drama; van Hove scatters it among the rafters and bounces it off the back of the hall.
Many will find the play’s theme of the perils of democracy timely. Easy parallels with Brexit don’t really work, except the broad parallel of toxic infighting, but the play will certainly strike a chord with British and francophone audiences wary of the popular lure of far-rightism. Van Hove is responding with a radicalism of his own, and even when it’s all a bit much, well – isn’t that a sign of the times?
The Damned is on at Barbican until 25th June. More info and tickets here.