‘The Damned’ review – Comédie-Française astonish in unsettling Nazi thriller

Ivo van Hove directs the French theatre company to create a high-octane, jet black adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s drama – ★★★★

The Damned takes political family arguments to the extreme. With tensions high after an arson attack on the Reichstag Parliamentary building, the Essenbeck family of steel industrialists (with links to the Nazi party) are caught in the middle of it all, in a gripping story of personal morals and power playing.

After a slow-paced, hit-and-miss adaptation of All About Eve, this latest staging of van Hove’s work is a meticulously structured and fast-paced media event. Long-time collaborator Jan Verswyveld designs another expansive set which makes full use of the Barbican stage, with fellow Network team member and video designer Tal Yarden leading the charge on the play’s cinematic content.

Just over two hours in length with no interval, the play continues creative motifs of the trio’s previous works – namely, the breaking of the fourth wall which fully immerses us in the action. Key powerful characters are the only ones who speak directly to the cameras. Others jump off-stage and run out of the theatre.

It’s a production which refuses to stand still. As audience members, we are constantly kept on edge with mesmerising performances until a high-pitched whistle jolts us back to reality to process what’s before us: the cameras turn on us as we watch family members changed and broken by manipulation gather centre-stage like roll call. They’re silent, but their expressions say it all.

In such an intense play, the company of Comédie-Française being able to balance micro-expressions and full-blown expositions aids the pacing as much as it gives an insight into their characters. Baron Joachim von Essenbeck’s silent reaction to a clarinet performance sees Didier Sandre rush through several emotions, almost as if he knows what lies in store in this complex psychodrama. On the other end of the scale, Christophe Montenez’s raw and gutting performance as the menacing and unhinged Martin von Essenbeck highlights the emotional strain on the industrialist family with brutal, striking ferocity. Even if one finds themselves lost following an overload of English subtitles and text at the start of the production, one can still follow the narrative through the lens of the raw reactions characters have to the blackmail and manipulation.

As family members bend under pressure, we see the Essenbecks collapse into darkness, consumed by the surge of the Nazi party. Colour drains from camera shots to become black-and-white and negative, the glamorous clothing fading in amongst the corruption.

A fascinating combination of talent, Ivo van Hove and Comédie-Française chronicle damnation with devastating minimalism.

The Damned (Les Damnés) is now playing at the Barbican until 25 June.

Production Images: Jan Versweyveld.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch The Damned for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated are honest and my own.


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