Ivo van Hove’s recent Barbican stage version of Luchino Visconti’s classic film ‘Obsession’ wasn’t the Belgian super-director’s best work. But this is much more like it, as he adapts Visconti’s deeply unsettling 1969 film ‘The Damned’.
Performed in French (with English surtitles) by the legendary Parisian ensemble Comédie-Française, it’s a grandiose and harrowing epic about a tainted German iron dynasty.
Designed as usual by Van Hove’s partner Jan Versweyveld, ‘The Damned’ makes use of live video and a gargantuan central screen to introduce us to the many-headed beast that is the Essenbeck family. The year is 1933; the family is gathering to celebrate patriarch Joachim’s birthday, on the very night that the Reichstag fire has broken out, tightening Hitler’s grip on power.
The Essenbecks are essentially opportunists: few of them have any real love for Hitler, but he is on the up and they are business people first and foremost. However, their belief that they can hitch their wagon to madness of the Nazi regime and come out intact is pure arrogance - as we see over a queasy, two-hour show in which the faults within the clan are ripped apart by the extremity and lawlessness of the Nazi regime. Simmering resentments that were once kept in check turn murderous as the Third Reich liberates the family from the shackles of civility; debauchery, insanity and slaughter follow.
I sometimes wonder if we’ve started taking Van Hove a bit for granted now that he’s so rarely off our stages. Not everything can be the slam dunk of, say, his Young Vic ‘A View from the Bridge’. But ‘The Damned’ really is a remarkable piece of work that it’s hard to imagine coming from anyone else. It’s a terrifying vision of physical and moral collapse that feels horribly in line with the queasy dread of our present. It’s also blessed with a central video sequence – designed by Tal Yarden – that stands as one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen in a theatre. In it, what looks like a live relay of the action on stage gradually degenerates into a hallucinogenic film of a homoerotic massacre of the SA, still trippily intersecting with the live action.
Be warned: there is absolutely no catharsis or joy here – not even the respite of an interval. Only the tongue-in-cheek deployment of a song by German shock rockers Rammstein briefly brought a smile to my lips. ‘The Damned’ begins in twilight and ends in total darkness. It’s not a happy experience, but it is a brilliant piece of art.
This review is of ‘The Damned’s run at the Park Avenue Armory in New York in July 2018.