The Damned continues Dutch theatre director Ivo van Hove’s obsession with adaptations, with his oeuvre now including four Bergman screenplays, versions of Oscar-winning films Network and All About Eve, and now four works from Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti.
And while this French-language play occasionally veers close to a van Hove ‘greatest hits’ compilation, it’s excellently performed by Comédie-Française, the state theatre company founded in 1680, performing in the UK for the first time in 20 years.
It follows a family of German industrialists through the rise of the Nazi party. After the execution of the family patriarch, a power struggle ensues between two of his sons and his widow’s oily lover, each one believing they hold some Machiavellian influence, although it soon becomes clear the true power lies beyond their control.
The play doesn’t have a great deal to say about the rise of fascism beyond the fact it’s, you know, bad. Instead it focuses on the family drama, using politics as a backdrop to what’s essentially a modern-day Greek tragedy.
The play hinges on a series of dynamic set pieces; a messy evening of naked beer drinking that ends in a bloody massacre; characters being led into their graves, only to be filmed by night vision cameras screaming and clawing at the closed coffin lid; key players being stripped (there’s a lot of nakedness) and slathered with viscous substances.
Throw into the mix some documentary footage, a bit of German death metal and some brain-piercing strobe effects and you have an audio-visual barrage, a play that washes over you with the force of a tidal wave, occasionally threatening to eclipse the drama.
Those familiar with van Hove’s back-catalogue will recognise many of the technical conceits: the on-stage camera projecting images behind the action; the open-plan stage; the covert swapping of the live video with pre-recorded footage; the actors leaving the theatre space and roaming around outside.
It can all be a bit disorientating, with the video working in opposition to the live action. If you’re not a fluent French speaker, a working knowledge of the material is pretty much essential. There are surtitles, but with your eye already drawn in several directions at once, you have to perform some real mental gymnastics to keep up.
Still, The Damned is the work of one of contemporary theatre’s most exciting talents. It’s powerful stuff, with scene after scene constructed with such maximalist beauty that it will take your breath away.