Review: The Fountainhead, Manchester International Festival, The Lowry
A four-hour, Dutch subtitled, dramatised version of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand might seem as appealing as a dinner party invite from Tommy Robinson, but when it’s directed by one of the world’s most acclaimed directors it’s an opportunity to see a startling and resonant piece of theatre.
Manchester International Festival (MIF) has snagged Ivo van Hove’s UK premiere of The Fountainhead, which he adapted five years ago for the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (ITA), from the cult 1943 novel. Famously celebrating the philosophy of individualism not collectivism, the novel is coveted by celebrity fans from Angelina Jolie to Sajid Javid and has even been parodied on The Simpsons.
The play is a pen portrait of Howard Roark (played by Ramsey Nasr), a teen symbol of rebellion and radical young architect who rejects commercialism in favour of his vision of freedom. He passionately believes that “to sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That’s what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul – would you understand why that’s much harder?”
The characters are allegorical and are symbols of larger themes of ambition, wealth, happiness, lust and creativity. Roark is pitted against the commercial Peter Keating, who constantly compromises and climbs the greasy pole at work.
The set centres around a large screen, created by Tal Yarden, which creates immediate impact. We are drawn into an open plan modernist office, with architectural drawings sketched by the cast and shown on the screen, as well as intimate, naked love scenes and front pages from The Banner newspaper. The stage also incorporates live drumming and electronic loops which soundtrack the performance and add nuance. At one point, the drummer Yves Goemaere wields a huge hammer banging it repeatedly on steel to depict construction work at a housing project.
The narrative focuses on a love triangle with the spirited love interest between Dominque Francon (played with flair by Halina Reijn), Keating and Roark. Dominque is a true femme fatal and as the daughter of boss, Guy Francon, we are constantly reminded that she is the visual embodiment of femininity. Reijn’s naked body becomes central to the story and is constantly on display for the male gaze. Although billed as a love story, I found the rape scene between Roark and Dominque uncomfortable viewing, especially when magnified on stage, on a screen.
This is an intelligent and compelling performance, particularly by Reijn and Nasr. However, I did find myself fading in the second half, worn out by the overblown character insights and constant interior monologues. A healthy edit would have increased the drama and made this a more palatable feast.
The Fountainhead is an opportunity to see a unique multi-media production that is a stylistic feat and the beginning of a creative partnership with van Hove and MIF. It’s a taster of upcoming work that will feature at The Factory, the new MIF site, a £110 million arts venue due to open at Manchester’s former Granada Studios site in 2020.
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