Dark side of la dolce vita

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A theatre group is turning three Antonioni movies into a single play at the Barbican. Michael Coveney takes a look behind the scenes of an epic project

How weird and unsettling are the films of Michelangelo Antonioni? And can they be transposed to the theatre?

His characters are stranded in emotional isolation from each other, usually in empty landscapes with huge buildings and the wind rushing through the trees. An aura of desolation hangs about his women, a feeling of sexual desperation, and despair, in his men.

The films pullulate with a sense of poetic danger and instability, and none more so than the trilogy of the early 1960s – L'avventura, La Notte and L'eclisse (The Adventure, The Night, The Eclipse) – which the outstanding Dutch theatre group, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, and its director, Ivo van Hove, have condensed, distilled, or indeed scalped, into one two-and-a-half hour play, Antonioni Project, coming to the Barbican next week.

I hopped across to Antwerp to catch the last performance before a special revival for the London date – part of an exciting new Barbican Bite international season, which also includes Peter Brook's The Magic Flute and Robert Lepage's Dragons' Trilogy coda.

In an age when the European cinema is increasingly raided for the Broadway musical – the trend started with A Little Night Music (derived from Ingmar Bergman's 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night) and continued through Nine (Fellini's 8 plus a little bit extra) to the recent Women on a Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (based on Pedro Almodóvar's movie) on Broadway – it was high time to find out how the European theatre itself responds to this new phenomenon of celluloid theatricality.

Ivo van Hove, an alert, wiry and fast-talking Flemish maestro who, over the past 10 years, has moulded Toneelgroep into one of the top European theatre companies – its six-hour Roman Tragedies, a condensed version of three Shakespeare plays, at the Barbican, was a five-star highlight of my theatre-going year – explains the process: "The movies I do on the stage always supply something I can't find in stage plays. In Antonioni Project, it's love relationships, of course, but mainly it's about how difficult it is for these people to experience on a full scale those relationships; there's not one moment without a struggle. I never found this feeling of alienation in a theatre play." Van Hove has already presented stage versions of Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and Cries and Whispers, Pasolini's Teorema and John Cassavetes's Faces and Opening Night, all of them fraught with spiritual and emotional crisis.

But no one has dared to touch Antonioni before. He applied for the rights before the film-maker died in 2007, and Van Hove thinks that his wife agreed to the project because of these other film-into-stage productions. "Also, I am 52," says the hawk-like Van Hove, "and I always say I exorcise my own mid-life crisis, I hope, by making this production. The whole thing feels to me, actually, like the staging of a midlife crisis, even with the young people in the play."

In Antonioni, the inner-life is continuously invaded by a sort of middle-class anomie and then dwarfed in the architecture of a spiritually numb post-war hedonistic society in Rome and Milan. In the movie L'avventura, for instance, Monica Vitti as Claudia and Gabriele Ferzetti as an amoral lothario, Sandro, whose fiancée (and Claudia's best friend) has disappeared on a boating trip, play sexual footsy while pulling on the bell ropes at the top of a Sicilian convent. It's a remarkable, mysterious scene, coming at the end of a cat-and-mouse pursuit on a train ride, then car journey, to the beautiful but seemingly abandoned city of Noto.

In the theatre, Van Hove's actors play the same scene on a huge white bed set at right-angles to the auditorium and projected simultaneously onto a large screen on the other side of the stage. Claudia and Sandro, for the Antonioni buffs, have jumped movies and are now guests at the all-night party thrown by a wealthy businessman in the movie La Notte, where Jeanne Moreau as the troubled Lidia stalks her own wayward writer husband, Giovanni, played by Marcello Mastroianni.

It's a brilliant characteristic of the stage production that you are drawn to the big screen for the close-up explanation of the ground-level battle, but that occasionally Van Hove will insist you watch the actors "live" without explicatory enlargement. "For me," he says, "the video is like the Greek mask: it enlarges and brings emotion closer. Like the microphone, it's another method of enhancement. I don't use video to be innovative – I used it as early as 1996! – but only when I need it. Theatre is about making thousands of choices. It's not just an aesthetic indulgence."

The stage, backed by a brilliant blue surround, is cluttered with technical equipment, including a camera crew with a dolly that can take us behind the walls into moments of unguarded intimacy. Across the front of the stage: a battery of screens and, somewhere, a live jazz combo, who suddenly materialise centre stage in the middle of the party and plays during our 10-minute comfort break.

What is so gripping is that an experience of inventive cinematic re-creation is also a genuine theatrical puzzle. Even those who know the films will be confused, if they worry too much in trying to untangle the identities at all moments, especially as "Monica Vitti", who starred in all three movies, unforgettably, is played by three different actresses. And some characters are elided into each other, while others bloom sporadically, such as the sexually repressed Julia in L'avventura who is suddenly seduced by a painter. This episode is played at full camera tilt on that same large bed, explicitly evocative of another Antonioni movie altogether, Blow-up.

L'eclisse, in which Vitti was seduced (sort of, and not completely) by a very James Dean-like and young Alain Delon as a feckless Milanese stockbroker, is the least evident of the trilogy on the stage, though van Hove takes the stunning moment of the eruption of the stock exchange into theatrical life as the central image of his play: "Those crashes, and that contrast of mad, mercantile elation and sudden loss and dejection, are a metaphor in the emotional lives of these characters. This is why I never considered making a play out of just one of the films: the three fit together perfectly; well, at least I think they do."

There is no attempt to create a parallel universe to Antonioni's De Chirico-like plazas, vistas and colonnades, that distinctive, aching emptiness of soul and scenery, but instead we have a witty scenario of encounter and dismay. The boat trip in L'avventura is played in bright light on a picnic blanket but projected on screen in the full Technicolor you can only imagine in Antonioni's black and white, punctuated with that cry of "A shark!", which cuts immediately to the exchange chaos of city sharks, followed by Anna and Claudia kissing, and swapping dresses, before the trip – and Lidia and Giovanni preparing to go out to the all-night party.

At the party itself, which appears, magically, to be shot in real time in La Notte and extends for over half the movie's length, Jeanne Moreau suffers beautifully and meditatively through to the small hours and a final, but unconfirmed, acceptance of Mastroianni's weakness. On stage, and in the second great coup of the evening, the revelry of an orgiastic dance and an outbreak of large white balloons is terrifyingly disrupted by a stage-filling, full-screen newsreel of floods, hurricanes, the BP oil spill and terrible devastation. Can the play itself survive such global catastrophe?

Of course: things carry on as normal, that's the point. Lidia goes off in a car with a man she doesn't know. Sandro is forgiven by Claudia for dallying with Julia (not a prostitute, as in the film). And Giovanni lies impassively on the floor, among the balloons (on screen), as Lidia (centre stage, and falling apart) reads the love letter that he fails to recognise as his own. Finally, in a scene lifted from The Red Desert, Antonioni's first film in colour, two seniors discuss aphrodisiacs, sweetly and tenderly, and the old woman utters the play's last line: "I feel like going to bed with someone."

Antonioni Project will be controversial here. Does it get sufficiently far away from the movies to justify its claims to stage originality? And does it really, as Van Hove, suggests, extend the vocabulary of theatre in areas uncharted before? I think it probably answers both questions in the positive. And it's a brilliant technical achievement.

But Toneelgroep is also a company of actors – together now for five or six years – comparable to any in the world. The show before the one I saw had been ambushed with practical problems, which meant the performance was played in one set lighting position. Van Hove had insisted to the audience that there were 17 wonderful actors on the stage who could continue if they made a unanimous show of hands. They did. "Still," says the director, "however elaborate or rehearsed the production, the theatre is all about the actors, nothing else – without them it is useless."

The edginess and volatility of the films is defined anew in these circumstances, relying less on a post-war la dolce vita background than a more modern, Pinteresque atmosphere of sexual ambiguity and territorial self-assertion and withdrawal. And Pinter himself might have approved Antonioni's quoting the Roman poet Lucretius in 1961: "Nothing appears as it should in a world where nothing is certain. The only thing certain is the existence of a secret violence that makes everything uncertain."

'Antonioni Project', Barbican Theatre, London EC2 (0845 120 7511; barbican.org.uk/bite) 1 to 5 February

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?