fri 22/01/2021

Antonioni Project, Barbican Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Antonioni Project, Barbican Theatre

Antonioni Project, Barbican Theatre

Toneelgroep wrestle classic Sixties arthouse films onto the stage

Back in the early 1960s, anyone with half a curious cultural brain in their heads would take themselves off to small fleapit cinemas like The Academy or the Classic in Oxford Street (now defunct). There you could catch the latest European art film. And at one of these I remember seeing Italian director Antonioni’s La Notte with Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni. Such was its impact that neither I nor the flat mates I was with were able to utter a word until we reached home.

That, of course, may have been due to the fact that we were confused and not willing to show it; on the other hand, I think we were also utterly absorbed by its atmosphere – the mark of any great film that draws you in and leaves you in its grip for hours after. So the fact that La Notte, along with Antonioni’s companion pieces – L’Avventura and L’Eclisse, in what is now termed his 1960s trilogy – have been turned into a stage version couldn’t help but intrigue me. How on earth could you begin to capture on stage the quintessentially cinematic tropes of Antonioni who broke with convention in extended long shots and boasted a languidness from its actors that was very much a characteristic of the time?

If anyone could bring it off, it must be Amsterdam’s Toneelgroep. Their visit last year to the Barbican with The Roman Tragedies – a full eight hours in length including loo stops and onstage refreshment – took Shakespeare’s Roman plays and thrust them into the 21st century using a feast of technological video-cam gadgetry. Antonioni Project, squeezing the three Antonioni films into a mere 140 minutes, is a trot in the park by comparison.

It’s no less startling for all that. Using split screens, a battery of high-tech video and blue-screen techniques (imposing a virtual image upon another), Toneelgroep’s director Ivo van Hove, video designer Tal Yarden and designer Jan Versweyveld have recreated a virtual film stage while never for one moment letting us forget it is a theatre stage.

The opening scene in which a dying man conducts a conversation with his best friends, Lidia (Marieke Heebink) and Giovanni (Hans Kesting) centre stage, comes to us via a vast screen (pictured below with actors from a previous cast) in which the characters seem to be talking within a hospital room or corridor and sets a tone of disorientation in keeping with the films’ auteur, whose original intention was to show modern man and woman’s alienation from society and inability to adapt emotionally to meaningful lives and relationships.

9._Antonioni_Project_Toneelgroep_Amsterdam_photocredit_Jan_VersweyveldIf the medium was the message with Antonioni, Van Hove’s medium is no less equivalent. Thus, the narrative jumps, the seemingly unexplained sudden couplings and painful partings all find their expression in views of characters caught in unexpected embrace behind a wall, upon a bed, transferred as if to an island setting surrounded by sea, or on the front seat of a car whilst camera booms swoop and encircle the actors who are mercilessly exposed in blinding close-up, every wrinkle in full view (try snogging a partner with an earpiece and mic firmly attached; can’t be easy).

If you’ve never seen the original trilogy, the narrative dislocation and mixing of scenes from the three films - the tale of Anna from L’Avventura who mysteriously disappears and whose lover, Sandro, begins a relationship with her best friend, Claudia; Lidia and Giovanni (from La Notte) each going through their own midlife crisis; and in L’Eclisse, an affair between a young, money-obsessed stockbroker Piero and Vittoria, the daughter of another trader on the stock exchange – must be confusing. Nor does this stage version manage to replicate the sense of ennui Antonioni’s 1960s actors embodied. No extended long shots here. Van Hove’s version is far too busy and passionate for that.

No, this is a 21st-century Dutch take on our own inchoate, obsessively sexual times in which sex is a commodity as easily acquired as forsaken, where the word "love" has been devalued and marriage has become a dessicated habit. Emotions are sprayed like scatter guns, neither reasonable nor consistent. Love-making proves nothing. And the world is a shockingly profligate, greedy mess as Van Hove’s horrific montage of contemporary disasters - floods, oil spillages, crashing towers – rams home.

Missing iconic performances from Moreau, Mastroianni and Monica Vitti (Antonioni’s muse), the Toneelgroep instead provide their own stunning ensemble. Marieke Heebink’s Lidia, Hans Kesting’s Giovanni and particularly the extraordinarily beautiful and talented Charlie Chan Dogelet as Valentina, the young daughter of Giovanni’s putative industrialist employer who Giovanni pours his heart out to, especially impress.

Meanwhile, techno geeks will have a field day with this Antonioni Project, pushing as it does the boundaries between stage and film so much further than either Robert Lepage (who follows them into the Barbican) or our own Katie Mitchell. If ultimately it’s hard to feel as involved as one might like with many of the characters, one should remember that that is not Van Hove or Antonioni’s intention. Rather, it’s an illustration of where we are continuing to go wrong and the values of materialism and instant gratification that foster them. That’s food for thought, at least.

'A new experience in motion picture eroticism!' How to sum up Antonioni in a trailer for an American audience


My memory of the Academy is that it was very far from being a flea pit. Academy 1 was red plush and gilt, Academy 2 (in the next room) more modern. Though this admittedly was in the very early 70s. A wonderful cinema (now M&S food department I believe) - saw so many incredible films there. I wish they'd bring it back.

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