The Antonioni Project

Based on the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, adapted from the films L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse, with adaptation & dramaturgy by Bart Van den Eynde
Toneelgroep Amsterdam
Barbican Theatre

The Antonioni Project production photo

Director Ivo van Hove is no newcomer to making stage adaptations from cinema originals, having already created work based on films by Cassavettes, Visconti and Bergman among others. The Antonioni Project, however, takes not one but three of Antonioni's cult classic black and white films from the early 1960s, making use of 45 scenes from them which have been interwoven to fashion its script which gives us a woman who disappears on an uninhabited island and whose lover is soon pursuing her traumatised best friend, a novelist whose childless marriage is stagnating and whose wife's best friend is dying, an industrialist whose wife cares mainly for her horses, a girl who breaks of an affair and then becomes involved with a stockbroker obsessed with money and himself.

There will be a chance to refresh your memory of the originals when the Barbican Cinema screens a performance of each it later in the month but my recollections of them are largely of impressive cinematography and some confusion. This 140-minute theatre work (with a 10-minute break in the middle) is performed in Dutch with English surtitles. It is difficult to keep track of so many characters and their relationships as we switch between three intertwining stories and to know when and where things are happening. It does seem to be a chronological progression but narrative is here less important than the picture of the way sex or money (or both) become obsessions in the lives of these Italian intellectuals and industrialists and a presentation of the angst in their well-heeled relationships whether in Milan or Rome or on a luxury yacht. The use of a mobile phone in a sequence on a racecourse places the action in the present day, a rerunning, as it were, of the stock market crash and ego-centred attitudes of the originals and as relevant today as then.

Van Hove unequivocally makes his point with a montage of documentary shots of natural and man made disasters, fires, floods, wars, famine, tsunami, festering favelas: a bigger statement than anything on the stage that fills the full width of the theatre. These are the things that really matter rather and we should be addressing, not scoring with a new chick or making another million for its own sake.

Van Hove and his designer Jan Versweyveld, working with video maker Tal Yarden, have turned the stage into a blue-screen television studio with camera tracks, camera dolly, a camera crane and movie lights and we watch the continuous shooting of live television at the same time as it is acted out on stage, sometimes in our vision and sometimes not. A row of monitors and video technicians is always in clear view in what would otherwise be the orchestra pit, invaded at one point by the actors when the cameras are turned upon the audience for the L'Eclisse scenes in the Milan Borsa (now, incidentally, owned by the London Stock Exchange).

Most of the time we can watch close ups on the huge screen hanging over the stage, though sometimes there is a sequence without figures, as when the screen shows a black and white progress through what may be airport corridors as the characters argue at the tops of their voices on the stage. In the earlier scenes Chroma Key technique is used to inlay the actors into pre-shot backgrounds. Later these are dispensed with and the setting is simply the on-stage furniture and background and there is a short sequence with no image at all when we get parallel radio rather than parallel video.

Unlike Katie Mitchell's National Theatre production of Waves a couple of years ago, in which cinema techniques were highlighted with actors at different places on the stage, close ups of other actors hands and props in other locations all inter-cut to create a composition that looked like a real scene, the aim here is not to present a polished movie image of reality - which would be punctured immediately by the very noticeable head mikes that all the characters are wearing, especially obvious when they are kissing!

On a few occasions a camera circles around a kissing couple or swoops across the stage or sometimes follows an actor but the aim is not meticulous image making but it seems as if the camera is used to give the intimacy with the actors that video allows even in a large theatre and at the same time to suggest the isolation of the characters in their own sphere. All the time we can see the action happening on stage, sometimes in even greater isolation when the couple filling the screen are surrounded by space and other characters or technicians may be passing to take up position. I n the party which is the setting for the La Notte scenes there is no crowded room, just individual exchanges.

Some things we are deliberately not shown on screen but we can see them being enacted; all the time there may be something going on to complement or contrast with what the cameras have selected. For those, like me, who need the surtitles (here presented cinema-style at the bottom of the video screen) there will inevitably be a tendency to concentrate on the screen image when there is dialogue. Those understanding Dutch may have a fuller experience of the effect of this double seeing.

This is a constantly intriguing show and it does have its effect, not dissimilar I guess to what Brecht intended by emphasising that this is being presented to us to consider as well as be moved by but I hope that its techniques will not become a trend. This says more about mistrusting technology than it adds to the theatrical experience. I am all for total theatre and welcome technological innovation but the essence of theatre is the performer. To substitute the intimacy of the camera for the contact of actor and audience rejects the greatest asset of live theatre, its point of difference from the mechanical media.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam fields a tremendous cast in this production. Every role is beautifully played. These are however, performances to the camera, scaled as such, sometimes from positions or at angles where the audience has no clear view of the actors and except when they are shouting could certainly not hear them without microphones. With a cast like this I want to see them playing as stage actors, whether projecting out to the expanses of the Barbican Theatre or in a more intimate space where the delicacy of their playing could blossom.

At the Barbican until 5th February 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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