Antonioni Project/Roman Tragedies

Barbican Theatre

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 or `art’ film. And at one of these I remember seeing Italian director Antonioni’s La Notte (The Night) with Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni. Such was its impact 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 (The Adventure) and L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) in what are 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 languidity from its actors that was very much a characteristic of the time. Alain Resnais’s L’Année dernière à Marienbad was another even more extreme and French `nouvelle vague’ example of the open-ended, enigmatic dream-like style of the period.

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. The 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 `bluescreening’ 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 whilst 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 an enormous screen 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 their society and their inability to adapt themselves emotionally to meaningful lives and relationships.

If  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 films, 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 bored sense of ennui Antonioni’s 1960s actors exemplified. 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 however 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.

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 home grown, Katie Mitchell.

If ultimately it’s hard to feel as involved as one might like with many of the characters, one should remember, 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.

To coincide with the Toneelgroep’s visit, Antonion’s three films, La Notte, L’Avventura and L’Eclisse will all be shown at the Barbican in the next two weeks.

First published in The Arts Desk in 2011


Ivo Van Hove brought The Roman Tragedies to the Barbican in Nov 2009.

Notes taken from my  Best of 2009 file – an aide-memoire for end-of-year awards and summings-up:

Roman Tragedies by Dutch company Toneelgroep Amsterdam,

This November, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, transforms the Barbican Theatre into a magnificent political arena with Ivo van Hove’s gripping six-hour spectacle, Roman Tragedies. And it was, too. If long. No particular interval; the whole stage area transformed into one vast tv/video studio – reality theatre with food and refreshments on stage to which participants are invited to partake at various intervals; nothing longer than 10 minute stops.

Very exciting first two bits – Coriolanus; Julius Caesar – all in latter day suits, lots of contemporary references and relevances about politicians and contempt for people – Coriolanus; democratic values in JCaesar with the wives given rather more substance than usual. They had a sharpness to them, a piquancy. But Antony & Cleopatra didn’t work for me though the fact that the central role, Antony, was played in a wheel chair because of an accident the previous week was fascinating. What you can do in a wheelchair. Magnificent actually.

But I didn’t like how they rendered the women – hysterical, sluttish. Maybe Cleo was that. But in this day and age it seemed excessive.

Difference between European and British sensibilities. Everything had a hysterical, full on emotional openness to it that we can’t match here. We don’t do overdrive.

In all three plays there was an emotional intensity unparalleled by Brit actors. The Brutus was wonderful; caught all the double foxiness and indecision of the man and as Coriolanus the disastrous pride.