The Damned (Les Damnés)

Based on Luchino Visconti’s film
Comédie Française
Barbican Theatre

Ensemble of The Damned Credit: Jan Versweyveld
Ensemble of The Damned Credit: Jan Versweyveld
Ensemble of The Damned Credit: Jan Versweyveld

It is fair to say that with the man who might be the world’s hippest theatre director, Ivo van Hove, viewers never know what to expect.

Even for this iconic auteur, working in collaboration with Comédie Française, a company making an all too rare visit to the United Kingdom, The Damned is something else.

Celebrating the golden jubilee of the release of Luchino Visconti’s cult film about the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the director pulls no punches in a stomach-churning 2¼-hour performance that is genuinely shocking.

Regular design collaborator Jan Versweyveld uses the wide, deep Barbican stage to the full with a square, central playing area backed by a large film screen. Visible in the wings are both actors’ costumes ready for quick changes and dressing room tables complete with illuminated mirrors that get full use.

Performed in French (and occasionally German) with surtitles, the drama is played out both on stage and screen, although the mix between the two can be a little unbalanced. So too are many of the members of the extended Essenbeck family around him the story revolves.

The evening starts in 1933 as the industrialist patriarch considers the future for the gigantic family steelworks, as Nazi populism begins to threaten its future after a scapegoat is blamed for the burning of the Reichstag.

Family rifts develop quickly in a struggle for power that soon begins to take on a wide, Shakespearean sweep, although some viewers might also find echoes of the family in Festen.

There are battles between generations and different family factions, often to the death, each significant passing recognised in highly ritual style, involving coffins, ashes and funereal musical accompaniment.

The power struggle within the family is then used as a metaphor for events taking place more widely in Germany, perhaps most powerfully when the innocent are sent to Dachau.

Perhaps the most significant figure is Christophe Montanez’s Martin, an androgynous Hamlet who, despite his unhealthy desire for very young girls, seems destined to lead the dynasty. However, to do so he needs to overcome his mother’s lover, the murderous Friedrich, played by Guillaume Gallienne.

In one of the evening’s most telling moments, that mother Sophie, portrayed by Elsa Lepoivre is literally tarred and feathered on stage, which cannot be any fun for the actress and is deeply unsettling for viewers.

In his efforts to depict and symbolise the hellish horrors of Nazi Germany, Ivo van Hove often goes way over the top, not only with the tarring and feathering but also scenes of death and destruction, film and audio from the Nazi era and one long scene of male debauchery that will long live in the memory, however much viewers would like to forget it.

This new interpretation of The Damned is undoubtedly strong stuff and, at different points, becomes both gratuitous in its violence and loses energy, but the evening is visually striking, psychologically disturbing and makes its political points in a fashion that is unique.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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