Dark side of la dolce vita

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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

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