Review: The Fountainhead (The Lowry, Manchester)

Ivo van Hove’s production of Ayn Rand’s famous novel comes to Manchester International Festival

The Fountainhead
The Fountainhead
© Tristram Kenton

The curtain rises on a detailed, naturalistic set of a 1920s house where we met the architect Howard Roark, agonising over his futuristic, modernist designs. What follows is a short, well-made play that tells his story while probing the motives and source of creativity.

Just kidding. We are in Ivo van Hove land and so only the last half sentence is true. What greets the audience entering the Lowry at the Manchester International Festival is a wide empty stage, dominated by a large screen, on which a lot of people mill around in modern clothes before embarking on a four-hour-long odyssey, in Dutch with surtitles, through Koen Tachelet's adaptation of Ayn Rand's complex and controversial novel.

The director's style is as unmistakable as a potter's mark, or the signature on a painting. Designs by Jan Versweyveld, which make full use of the space, with everything in view; an ambient disturbing soundtrack produced by a bank of producers at the back of the stage; lots of close-ups on camera, a fair amount of nudity, smoking, sex and a lot of agonising. British theatre-goers have experienced more and more of it recently, as productions he made years ago have been imported onto our stages.

This one was created in 2014 and it is van Hove's flair that illuminates Rand's weird story of the architect Roark, a martyr for the impossible and a symbol of the moral egotist, which is much loved by the libertarian right for its advocacy of a view of society that favours the individual over the masses and despises altruism. Since democracy is represented by the power-hungry, smooth-talking newspaper columnist Ellsworth Toohey who is probably the least likeable character in a pretty unlikeable bunch (played with quiet rapacity by Bart Slegers), it is clear where Rand's views lie.

Van Hove and his company, the excellent Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, play it pretty straight, though he stresses the idea that this is an examination of creative genius through his single most brilliant stroke – which is to show Roark (Ramsey Nasr, blankly self-convinced) actually drawing Frank Lloyd Wright-style masterpieces; I could quite happily have watched those sketches, shown in close up on the big screen, for most of the four hours.

A scene from The Fountainhead
A scene from The Fountainhead
©Tristram Kenton

The problems arise when the speech is in full flow; it is enormously talky, and full of muddled, intractable ideas. This includes the notion that a powerful woman Dominique Francon, will reveal her disgust with the state of society by sexual self abasement and that her relationship with Roark will begin with a rape (which she somehow enjoys) and continue with the kind of dialogue that goes: "Every time I know I've hurt you, I'll let you own me."

The fact that she is played by Halina Reijn with more subtlety and lightness than you'd believe possible was a great help keeping me going. As was the arrival of the magnificent Hans Kesting as Gail Wynand, the newspaper tycoon whose belief in Roark and love for Dominique make him turn on its head his idea that all integrity is corruptible. He looms over the second act, finding all kinds of light and shade in a complicated, compelling character. Aus Greidanus Jr is also terrific as Roark's weak-willed friend and rival, a man so desperate for success that he will sell his own wife.

But in the end, it's the production that shines. When van Hove is in full flight – taking you to the top of a New York skyscraper, letting the light seep in from a massive plate glass window as the shadows lengthen, blowing up a building with an explosion that sweeps the stage – there is no one like him. For all the right reasons.