Adapted and directed by Ivo van Hove from the novel by Ayn Rand
Internationaal Theater Amsterdam
The Lowry, Salford Quays
10, 11 and 13 July 2019, 4hr 20min
So let’s get the length thing out of the way first. Yes, it was the best part of four and a half hours. The equivalent of a box-set binge with a couple of trips to the fridge along the way. Not an issue.
And then the surtitles. Now this was much more interesting. The novel, by Ayn Rand, is in English. The adaptation is in Dutch – but with a director of Ivo van Hove’s international renown the production was never going to remain in the Netherlands. The requirement for surtitles in the original English must have been an integral part of the production planning and design.
I spent the first 10 minutes or so feeling very anxious that I was missing either crucial lines or important action. The crispness of the production and the brisk utilitarian set gave me the sense that Mr van Hove was standing at my shoulder, drumming his fingers in impatience at my slowness.
But of course I was supposed to be reading the words; the surtitles were offering me the freedom of choice and space to think (since reading is quicker than listening) that is at the centre of the work.
This complex, multi-faceted work is also a multi-sensory, multimedia piece of theatre.
Ayn Rand’s novel is set in 1920s New York, with the world of the architect as a metaphor, according to the director, to discuss "art, engagement, individualism and autonomy". The clever projections, as the buildings emerged from the drawing board along with the emotions of the characters, were gripping, and van Hove’s signature video close-ups of the actors gave depth and texture. Anti-hero Howard Roark (Ramsey Nasr) raged against the assumption that the individual should be working for the common good, refusing to compromise his work at the whim of the client. Arrogance, selfishness, honesty, integrity, reason, compassion, success and failure – all huge issues, which easily filled the time, the stage and the surtitle screens.
The love themes were also complex, and for me slightly less successful. Dark, violent and extreme, these were perhaps even more difficult to pin down than the big philosophical questions about creation and the rights of the individual to pursue happiness without social conscience. I wanted Dominique (Halina Reijn), the central object of desire, to have more backbone; I didn’t really feel the raw passion, nor did I have a great deal of sympathy for rejected lover Katie (Janni Goslinga). Not much room for the feminist agenda here.
What I did feel was the power of the music throughout. It took me a moment to realise that the architects working away at the back of the stage were musicians, their playing cleverly integrated with the staging as well as with recorded period and new composition (Eric Sleichim).
I was expecting to find a clear hook for a comment about Donald Trump, who has avowed that The Fountainhead is his favourite book. But in Ivo van Hove’s hands, the ideas transcended mere politicians; and they are pretty terrifying, whichever way you look at them.