Obsession review: Jude Law smoulders in a fiery love affair ★★★

The acting is superb but this new adaptation of the 1943 Italian film fails to set the stage alight

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Jude Law was in the middle of filming The Young Pope in Rome when director Ivo Van Hove made a transcontinental pilgrimage to pitch him the role of Gino. An individual who, one imagines, the pontiff would likely direct straight to the nearest confessional with at least a dozen Hail Marys.

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A charmer and drifter, a guy with no fixed place in the world, he chances upon a bar looking for a meal, but quickly finds a hunger instead for Hanna (Halina Reijn), the young wife of the owner. Trapped in an abusive marriage of convenience, she eagerly devours his licentious advances and they embark upon a lustful affair. 

But this isn’t the suave lothario that people might associate with the star of The Talented Mr Ripley, who first took to the Barbican’s stage 22 years ago. Restraining his natural velvety swagger, his Gino is more equivocal, his amply displayed physique conceals fragility. Fighting his natural instinct to flee, he’s more interesting than your typical cocksure philanderer. 

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Halina Reijn as Hanna and Jude Law as Gino

Unfortunately, though, this adaptation from the 1943 Italian film of the same name (which itself was an adaptation of James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice) suffers because Gino and Hanna’s relationship feels underdeveloped, and their chemistry lacks real power. The barbarous consequences of their illicit liaison unspool at such speed that you don’t have the opportunity to immerse yourself in either character. And as their decisions lead to more compromised predicaments you struggle to empathise with either. 

A small cast of periphery characters flit in and out – the concerned priest, the grizzled detective, the fellow drifter – but none feel like they have enough meat on the bone.

The true obsession at the heart of the play is not Gino and Hanna’s desire for each other, but for their sense of place or lack thereof. Gino is at home in the freedom of being anywhere and nowhere feels trapped by small-town life. Hanna, whose marriage had at least given her a sense of stability, is loathe to abandon that comfort for an uncertain future on the road. Both struggle between their consuming want for each other and their differing natures, and the play’s real tension is in this push and pull.

Van Hove’s staging is characteristically minimalist: a simple bar, a large engine suspended from the ceiling and a sink. Warm sunlight spills from a large bay window, washing the scene in the sweaty heat of summer. But at times the vast Barbican stage feels like too large a canvas; you can’t help but wonder if the play might benefit from a more claustrophobic space.

If His Holiness in Rome was inclined to stop in at the Barbican to check on his young protégé, he might delight enough in this artful interpretation not to condemn the sinful couple to the fiery pits of hell. But, he’d probably agree, they haven’t quite achieved heaven either. 

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Obsession is at The Barbican until 20 May