The Fountainhead review – Ivo van Hove hypnotises with Ayn Rand's nonsense

Ivo van Hove is the most ubiquitous of modern directors. But, while it is good to find the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam paying its first visit to Manchester as part of the current festival and while Van Hove’s production displays his characteristic virtuosity, I wish all this phenomenal talent were devoted to something other than a four-hour version of Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel, which has become the bible of the American right.

Rand’s book is a hymn to “rational selfishness” and rugged individualism as embodied in Howard Roark, a modernist architect of genius at odds with a culture that worships compromise, mediocrity and, in public buildings, a fake classicism. What skews the story, including this faithful dramatisation, is the loaded nature of the argument. Rand clearly endorses Roark’s view that “no man can live for another”. The trouble is that the advocate of democratic equality in the story, Ellsworth M Toohey, is a columnist with a pathological power-lust. The book’s sexual politics also leave one feeling decidedly queasy since Roark’s lover, Dominique, is obsessed by him after he has shown his mastery by taking “shameful, contemptuous possession of her”.

Halina Reijn invests Dominique with fire and spirit in The Fountainhead. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Van Hove and his designer, Jan Versweyveld, stage this nonsense with typical elan. Above all, the production achieves something very rare: it shows work actually being done. We are confronted by a gigantic architect’s office and overhead cameras record every stroke of the pen by Ramsey Nasr’s Roark, who does a highly plausible sketch of a Frank Lloyd Wright-style building growing organically out of a cliff-top. The sex scenes are also rendered with startling intimacy and it is greatly to the credit of Halina Reijn that she invests Dominique with a fire and spirit I didn’t detect in the book. Hans Kesting plays a newspaper tycoon, who clearly owes something to Welles’s Citizen Kane, with a bullish single-mindedness, and there is assured support from Bart Slegers as the insidious columnist and from Aus Greidanus Jr as an architectural parasite.

The staging is constantly inventive and, through Tal Yarden’s video, at one point captures the sensational collapse of a social housing project. It’s just a shame all this energy wasn’t devoted to something more profound than Rand’s overheated polemic.

At the Lowry, Salford, until 13 July. The Guardian is a media partner of Manchester international festival, which runs until 21 July.

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