Following its success at the Barbican with Roman Tragedies in 2009, Toneelgroep Amsterdam and its director Ivo van Hove have now returned with the Antonioni Project.
The 140-minute long play is a new take on Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy of early 1960s films – L’avventura, La notte and L’eclisse – which all focus on couples failing to connect with each other and the world around them.
Van Hove made the decision to meld these films into one because he felt that the characters in the stories could be each other at different stages in their lives. This leads to the three plots intertwining and the people from the various films sometimes meeting.
The experience is enhanced by having the characters filmed live, with their images (and surtitles as the performance is in Dutch) projected instantaneously onto a screen. This draws both the mind and eye to certain expressions or elements of the story, and creates an exciting, and frequently overwhelming, visual experience.
The set is primarily one blue screen, which enables backdrops to appear behind the characters when they appear on film. The atmosphere is also enhanced by the ‘workings’ of the play being totally visible. Those behind the cameras freely grace the stage, while the technicians sit in an ‘orchestra pit’ in front of the audience with their monitors and controls in full view. Trumpet playing and singing rises from the pit, while later on a live band performs as part of the action.
Our interest is sustained by the fact that the filming methods employed constantly vary. The play’s first part introduces us to the characters in a series of scenes with just two or three people, and very cleverly we view two versions of every encounter. Live on stage the characters, surrounded only by blue walls, appear lost in time and space which highlights their sense of isolation. On screen, however, backdrops are inserted, which applies context to the scenarios. It also provides some continuity between the scenes as several take place in buildings, the city or other structures being clearly visible through the large glass windows.
The filming also enables us to see the people up close, and is no more powerful than when we watch everything running through the mind of the dying Tommaso (Hugo Koolshijn) for whom the ‘operation succeeded, but the patient died’. Then suddenly cameras swirl around and the entire orchestra pit becomes a trading floor. The cast are the traders, the monitors the computers they use, and the audience the backdrop that enhances the sense of frantic activity.
The second part takes place entirely at a party, with the camera almost continuously moving about the stage and drawing our attention to certain details. As a couple go to bed it zooms from one to the other to emphasise the tensions and passions that exist between them. It then circles the entire stage to reveal all of the activity occurring at the party while this one act takes place. The camera can also move away from the main conversation to focus on an isolated individual, picking up on their every gesture and thought process. The third and final section then sees the screen grow to film theatre proportions as we witness a series of close-ups between characters, or conversely watch them on stage with the screen only contributing surtitles. The filming, however, always seems to respond to the drama (or dramatic requirements) rather than dictate it, which is the way it should be.
While the staging itself is immensely powerful, it is not always as easy to feel for the people or their situations. This is possibly because if we are inclined to respond to emotion on stage, then isolation (which can manifest itself as an absence of emotion) is more difficult to connect with. The acting is superb and the cameras frequently allow us to see every thought that runs through these characters’ heads, but still it is sometimes easier to understand these people’s crises than to feel them for ourselves. Perhaps because of the speed at which so many people are introduced, it becomes difficult to get to grips with each person’s history and background.
But van Hove always admired the way in which Antonioni covertly hinted at the wider political backdrop that such interactions took place against, and in the play this element also peeks through. In the current climate of cuts, when the arts are seen as a soft touch for reduced funding, one line has particular resonance: “Who cares for beautiful things nowadays?”
So long as van Hove keeps producing work of this standard, we know that there is at least one person who does.