The Antonioni Project, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

Why attempt to translate a celluloid masterpiece for the stage?

Nine times out of 10 – no, 19 times out of 20 – such endeavours come to grief. Swimming with Sharks, anyone? And yet there is the odd terrific counter-example – like Festen. There, the playwright David Eldridge and director Rufus Norris took an intractable film – a Dogme hand-held home movie of a family gathering from hell – and made it work by co-opting the audience into a dreadful social encounter.

I wish The Antonioni Project had the same measure of achievement. Intermittently, it does. But it's an odd fish. I occasionally found myself deeply intrigued and bored rigid at the same time. Only remarkable productions can claim as much.

This is an attempt by a Dutch director, Ivo van Hove, and Amsterdam's acclaimed Toneelgroep to stage Michelangelo Antonioni's masterly cinematic trilogy, L'Avventura, L'Eclisse and La Notte. On that level, one would have to say the evening is a spectacular failure. As I tried to puzzle my way through a very audience-unfriendly narrative, I was reminded of Dr Johnson's statement that whoever went to Clarissa for story-clarity might as well hang himself.

And yet the combination of live and filmed work (thrown up on a giant screen), aided and abetted by some remarkable (if face-miked) acting, is stunning. There is the best jazz band I think I have ever heard, performing to a drolly revolving, Brobdingnagian glitterball. There is a sequence, to the sublime Siegfried's Tod music from The Ring, in which, unforgivably, the piece hitches a lift off disasters from the New Orleans floods to the BP oil slick.

The Antonioni Project keeps finessing and out-smarting itself, to the point of intolerability. But it is absolutely worth seeing. Go for the weird textures. There are some great jokes, too. I love the idea of a Dutch Liz Smith-alike randily re-energised by a cockatrice's egg.