Reviews West End & Central Published 26 April 2017

Review: Obsession at the Barbican

19 April - 20 May

What I’m suppose to think vs What I actually think: Fergus Morgan reviews the world premiere of Ivo van Hove’s Obsession.

Fergus Morgan
Obsession at the Barbican.

Obsession at the Barbican.

What I’m supposed to think about Ivo van Hove’s Obsessionthe second of three productions in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Barbican residency:

That it takes Luchino Visconti’s 1943 neorealist Italian film – itself based on James M Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice – and extrapolates its searing themes so that they speak not just to the social deprivations of Fascist Italy, but to the essence of contemporary life as well. 

That, with its simple story of two adulterous lovers – drifter Gino and frustrated housewife Hannah – being driven by their all-consuming passion to commit murder, only to immediately regret it, Obsession unveils the inherently paradoxical relationship between passionate love and violent destruction, and insightfully observes the cyclical, self-destructive tendencies of the perennially restless. 

That van Hove has realised these social patterns in a visually stunning, powerfully abstract production, utilising his trademark devices to great effect upon long-term collaborator Jan Versweyveld‘s vast, warehouse-like set, and squeezing every drop of emotion from Simon Stephens’ fashionably detached text. 

That Jude Law, as charismatic hobo Gino, and Halina Reijn, as the unhappily married Hannah, provide performances of unhurried gravitas, methodically savouring the rush of instant attraction, the thrill of illicit conjugation, the adrenaline of murderous complicity, the horror of gradual realisation, and the despair of ultimate dissatisfaction. 

That Obsession represents the dizzying, unattainable heights towards which all theatre-makers must point their ambition, and that I am incredibly lucky to have witnessed the world premiere of such an in-vogue auteur’s latest offering. 

What I actually think about Ivo van Hove’s Obsessionthe second of three productions in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Barbican residency: 

That it is a torturously tedious vanity project, with all the emotional nuance – and none of the accessibility – of a Patricia Highsmith melodrama, staged with breathtaking pretentiousness and self-indulgent grandiosity, and afforded far, far more respect that it deserves.

That van Hove and Versweyveld have simply splashed about with their recognisable and increasingly hackneyed devices – expansive designs, large-scale video projectionsjarringly inappropriate pop songscharacters being doused in viscous fluidcharacters chucking stuff aboutviolence against women (classic, eh?) – with the sole effect of inflating the gravitas of an only passingly compelling plot, so that they end up somewhere perilously close to gimmick. 

That Eric Sleichim’s insistent, fidgety sound design, and Versweyveld’s eternally migrating lighting are more annoying than anything else, reaching for a totally undeserved epic-ness but actually serving only to disguise the drama’s glaring absence of depth.

That Jude Law and Halina Reijn are fine actors – as are their co-stars Gijs Scholten van AschatChukwudi Iwuji, Robert De Hoog, and Aysha Kala – but that none of them can salvage anything – certainly not passion – from Simon Stephens’ lazily flat adaptation, and that such an obviously classy ensemble should not have been so profligately wasted on such an insubstantial text. 

That the whole thing is so concerned with gazing up its own arse, it hasn’t realised quite how ridiculous it is, with some moments – random operatic interludes, inexplicably suspended musical instruments, Jude Law running clumsily on a treadmill – seeming so arbitrarily inserted as to provoke groans.

That anyone who simultaneously tells you theatre has an accessibility problem and that Obsession is a commendable piece of work is either a hypocrite or a liar, and you should never trust them again. 

That it’s only worth going to see an van Hove production if it is of a classic text (see A View From The Bridge, Roman Tragedies, Kings Of War, Hedda Gabler), and not at all worth it if it’s not, and that we all might – might – be suffering from a case of Emperor’s New Clothes when it comes to van Hove, and that – controversy klaxon – David Hare might have had a bit of a point about European director’s theatre. 

That I’ve wasted an hour and forty five minutes of my life sitting in one of the finest auditoriums in London watching something that had zero right to be there, and that I’ve enjoyed writing this review considerably more than I enjoyed seeing the show. 

That I would rather have stayed home and watched Chelsea vs Southampton instead.

Obsession is at the Barbican until 20th May 2017. Click here for more details. 


Fergus Morgan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Obsession at the Barbican Show Info

Directed by Ivo van Hove

Written by Jan Peter Gerrits, Simon Stephens (adaptation)

Cast includes Jude Law, Robert de Hoog, Chukwudi Iwuji, Aysha Kala, Halina Reijn, Gijs Scholten van Aschat



Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.