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Phil Willmott

Review: THE DAMNED at The Barbican Theatre

The Damned (Les Damnées) Comédie-Française at the Barbican It feels as if scarcely a month goes by without one production or another by superstar director Ivo Van Hove causing a splash in London. His radical staging of ALL ABOUT EVE was recently at the Noel Coward Theatre and we’ve had revelatory productions of Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Sophocles amongst many others. He’s equally busy on Broadway (NETWORK was a sensation) and coming up the maestro will be re-conceiving WEST SIDE STORY.

He’s so prodigious because he works quickly, banging out a carefully planned show in a much shorter time than most directors. This no fuss approach is reflected in the productions themselves, daringly stark on empty stages with usually one signature flourish - often liquid; water, oil, blood etc poured over the actors, and very often projections of close up footage of their actors faces.

Each new variation in the formula takes him nearer and nearer to self parody but just when I’m beginning to find it all predictable and ridiculous he’ll turn his approach to some new text and the production will blow me away. No one who saw his interpretation of Arthur Miller’s A VIEW FROM A BRIDGE or THE CRUCIBLE will ever think of those plays in the same way again.

Unfortunately THE DAMNED, currently playing at the Barbican, isn’t as successful.

An adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film of the same name, and created for and with Paris’ Comédie-Française in 2016, it’s the sprawling saga of the Essenbeck family, rich and powerful industrialists who become caught up with the Nazis as they rise to power in 1930’s.

The patriarch is murdered on the night of Reichstag fire and his feuding descendants are locked into a furious battle for control of their steel company. Scenes of their depravity are juxtaposed with key incidents from Weimar Germany and the emergence of the Third Reich.

The original film unfolds naturalistically, Van Hove’s stage version uses his increasingly familiar box of tricks (modern dress, a bare stage, projections, actors getting messy, etc.) to create something more symbolic, perhaps hoping to jolt us into thinking of this as a story for our times as Europe threatens to lurch precariously towards right-wing populism.

It runs for two hours without an interval and bombards you with a dizzying series of theatrical gimmicks. Each individual moment is very impressive and there’s plenty that’s deeply unsettling as family members are dispatched into the coffins waiting at the side of the stage and scrabble for life as the lids are lowered and their faces are projected, huge, gasping for air, behind the ensuing action.

The trouble is that this all upstages the story telling. I’ve never seen the film and I really struggled to follow who was who and the motivations and consequences of their actions. Amidst all the theatricality it’s often difficult to even spot who’s speaking the French subtitled text. The beautiful, statuesque and chicly dressed cast also play everything so slowly that the subtitles get ahead of them, perhaps an indication of how ponderous and indulgent they’ve become with it since the premiere three years ago.

Although there’s plenty to engage the intellect it becomes impossible to emotionally engage with the characters, the themes or story.

This isn’t a production about the dangers of Fascism it’s a two hour demonstration of how clever the director is.