The Fountainhead

Based on the book by Ayn Rand
International Theater Amsterdam
The Lowry, Salford

Hans Kesting and Ramsey Nasr as Gail Wynand and Howard Roark in The Fountainhead Credit: Jan Versweyveld
Halina Reijn and Ramsey Nasr as Dominique Francon and Howard Roark in The Fountainhead Credit: Jan Versweyveld

An epic four-hour drama—in Dutch—that mixes up all sorts of notions about personal and political accountability could nevertheless prove to be one of the highlights of Manchester’s current international festival.

The Fountainhead receives its UK première here, but has been dazzling theatre audiences around the world for five years. It is a stage adaptation, by maven Belgian director Ivo Van Hove and his International Theatre Amsterdam, of the controversial 1943 novel by Russian-American author Ayn Rand.

She has been called the high priestess of libertarian politics, and her creed promoting individualism over collectivism has been enthusiastically promoted by many on the right.

In this story, she uses architecture as a symbol of the struggle between innovation and tradition, as a young and uncompromising designer, Howard Roark, takes on what he regards as the reactionary forces represented by his colleague Peter Keating. Between both men floats the volatile catalyst of Dominique Francon, an alluring and independently-minded newspaper columnist with her own perverse views on the men’s conflict.

And all that encompasses the two hours of the first act, and before the introduction of an unbalanced and corrupt media mogul Gail Wynand into the plot.

So this was never going to be an easy night at the theatre. English surtitles, above and to both sides of the stage, obviously assist, but there are some other basic disconnects that challenge the audience. The whole of The Lowry’s giant Lyric space is left open for the ‘mechanics’ of the production to be evident at all times. Musicians float on and off at the back of centre-stage to provide a haunting and effective soundtrack. Cameras above stage provide unique overhead projections onto video screens or a backdrop to bring another dimension to the story. Through this technique, architectural drawings are brought to actual life, but it can also provide a welcome distancing effect during the story’s notorious rape scene, or at other moments of unabashed intimacy.

And when media tycoon Wynand takes his revenge, an actual printing press is rolled downstage to run off the damning headlines.

It is all genuinely thrilling stagecraft, culminating in an almost cinematic climax of sound, vision and other effects that still allows for another half hour of story before the final curtain...

It is occasionally baffling, but always beguiling. Above all, it introduces audiences to an ensemble cast of prodigious talent, with the promise of more to come. Ivo van Hove and his company are among several collaborators committed to developing new work for Manchester’s 2021 cultural jamboree in its exciting new setting of the vast Factory venue currently taking shape in the city.

Reviewer: David Upton

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