Writer: Ayn Rand adapted by Koen Tachelet
Director: Ivo van Hove
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
The 2019 Manchester International Festival (MIF) has not been without controversy. There has been a dispute about authorship of one of the plays and an absent presenter literally phoned-in her address at the opening event. Staging an adaptation of The Fountainhead– Ayn Rand’s epic tribute to individualism (often used to justify the excesses of capitalism) may be just another controversial development.
Howard Roark (Ramsey Nasr) is a brilliant architect but his refusal to compromise his principles makes him unemployable. Roark’s talent is exploited by his best friend Peter (Aus Greidanus jr ) and condemned by the media who consider him elitist. Roark is; however, keen to exploit the sexual preferences of reporter Dominique (Halina Reijn) in a brutal manner. They form a mutually destructive relationship and Dominique contributes to Roarke’s downfall and disgrace. Roark forms an unlikely alliegence with a media magnate but his refusal to compromise his artistic purity leads to a final act of destruction.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the stage adaptation is the refusal of director Ivo van Hove to pander to the perceived liberal tastes of theatregoers. He is sincere in his appreciation of the source material. Rather than satirise the right-wing opinions of the central character the production is without a hint of parody. However, one might argue that, with the political statements made in the same verbose manner as, say, proclamations about architecture, their impact is muted. Ramsey Nasr takes a detached approach to his interpretation of Roarke – he has the aloof air of a villain from a James Bond movie lacking only a white cat. Despite the intentions of the director, some of the dialogue is so poor as to be unintentionally funny.
The sexual politics of the story have not aged well. Aware that sex scenes bordering on rape might be too much for the sensibilities of a contemporary audience, van Hove films them using overhead cameras and, while this does not gloss over the brutality of the action, the detached effect allows us to feel a bit less like voyeurs.
Ivo van Hove uses such a variety of styles the play becomes a glorious mixture. He pays tribute to classic Hollywood movies as the play opens with a character reading the source novel and newspaper headlines spin across a screen. Ivo van Hove is aware of the excesses of the play not least the four-hour running time and constantly pushes his luck in cheeky manner. Rather than use pre-drawn images of Roark’s designs Ramsey Nasr painstakingly sketches them by hand. As each Act ends a character steps forward to demand the audience wait for an epilogue.
Howard Roark is an architect so it is appropriate the stage set designed by Jan Versweyveld should be a masterpiece. An ultra-modern office has been constructed pushing back to fill all available space to the extent the stage set merges with the musical instruments to the rear. Everyone on stage, cast and musicians/ technicians, is dressed for a day at the office. Greedy for space Versweyveld spills the set off the stage and uses the area normally occupied by the first rows of the stalls for a desk and bed. Yet, in a typical audacious gesture, a breath-taking cityscape backdrop replaces the elaborate set in Act Two.
The Fountainhead is marketed as a precursor for The Factory, which will become the new venue for MIF events. On tonight’s evidence, audiences can look forward to imaginative shows, immaculately staged but which are more than a little self-indulgent.
Runs until 13 July 2019 | Image: Jan Versweyveld