Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

Dr Sally Marlow is not impressed by 'Obsession' at the Barbican.

Obsession at the Barbican has all the right ingredients. It has an impeccable heritage based on Visconti’s iconic Italian film Obsessione, itself based on the novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. It has a plot which involves an illicit affair, murder and regret. It has a stellar cast, with Jude Law as the male lead, and the talented Halina Reijn opposite him. The script was written by the excellent Simon Stephens, and the director is the avant-garde poster boy du jour, Belgian Ivo van Hove, fresh from successes including Hedda Gabler at the National. And crucially for The Psychologist, it has great psychological subject matter. The clue is in the name – it’s a study of that oh-so-human state, obsession.

Except it’s not. The play simply doesn’t deliver. 

Jude Law plays Gino, a drifter who begins an affair with Hanna, who is married to a domineering restaurant owner, Joseph. The affair progresses – they try to run away, but Hanna loses her nerve and returns to her husband. Gino tries to leave her behind but he can’t.  The drama moves inexorably towards the only possible solution – the murder of Joseph. What follows is the disintegration of the relationship between Gino and Hanna, as Gino is overcome with remorse, and Hanna is revealed as manipulative and calculating.

About 20 minutes in, I wondered at what point those involved in this production realised it simply wasn’t working. Was it during the early read-throughs when the clunky dialogue became apparent? Or was it later in rehearsal, when Hanna had to throw the contents of a rubbish bin over herself whilst lying on her back on the bar of the restaurant, singing opera? Did the clever, sparse, staging with its integral videos show up the incongruity of the sentimental ending accompanied by crashing waves? Did the layering on of powerful music from Carmen and La Traviata alongside Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, and Iggy Pop imbue the dramatis personae with a false sense that their acting was as emotionally convincing as their musical accompaniment?  

We all enter an unspoken deal when we enter the theatre. We will suspend our disbelief. We will cut the theatre, the play and the cast some slack. In return we expect to feel some degree of emotion, we expect something to change. We park our knowledge that this is a performance, in return for seeing and experiencing an authenticity that can’t be easily understood in the real world. At the end we clap. 

Except I didn’t clap. This is so rare for me it happens maybe once a decade. About half of the audience appeared to be in raptures at the end, so maybe I missed something. Or maybe Jude's fan club were in. For me, however, Obsession was far, far less than the sum of its parts.  

- Dr Sally Marlow is at the National Addiction Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London

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