I have become leery of mixed media perfomances in part because of Katie Mitchell's irritating forays into the genre. She seems to be the only British director keen on importing contemporary continental theatrical styles, but she does it in a sloppy, joyless way that makes her productions a trial to sit through. So I went to THE ANTONIONI PROJECT with some trepidation. I was also skeptical about whether Antonioni's trilogy of films from the early 1960s (L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse) could be translated into another medium. They can't without major changes to the works, but THE ANTONIONI PROJECT is fascinating on many levels, one of which is the difference between actors on stage and a mediated, flat image on the screen.
What one remembers from the Antonioni trilogy are the many moments of silence. Dialogue seems secondary to the spaces between lines. Antonioni's central characters, particularly those played by the magnetic Monica Vitti, would rather not talk. They would rather have no close contact with other people. I think of the many Antonioni scenes in which a woman avoids kissing a man. Just as he gets close, she will turn her head away. Human connection, physical or verbal, is just too difficult. Language is a problem because character know they can't live up to the big words like love. They tell others that they don't love them, but they don't really know what the word means. They have a sense of what they should feel, but simply don't feel it. The films are in black and white -- I can't imagine them in color -- and the bleak settings represent the characters' alienation. There's a wonderful moment at the beginning of THE ECLIPSE in which Monica Vitti's character is looking out the window at this strange mushroom-shaped tower. The tower looks like something out of a science fiction film -- or the cloud of an atomic bomb. Roads are barren and empty as are the characters. There is no traditional narrative in these films. Characters meet and move away from each other. This is film influenced by writers like Samuel Beckett.
Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Netherlands' major theater group, has combined moments from the three films into a new work. The pit of the Barbican Theatre is filed with technicians, actors and, sometimes, musicians. The large playing area is a three-sided blue screen. We see the actors on this bare stage and, above, on a giant screen with digitized backgrounds and subtitles (the performance is in Dutch). As the performance goes on, the relationship between live and projected image becomes more complex. Sometimes we only see the actors onstage, sometimes only on the screen. The large stage becomes the empty world of Antonioni's films. The screen shows us what the camera always tries to do -- seek the inner life of the characters behind the surface. In Antonioni's films, this is almost impossible. As the evening goes on the three films sometimes blend in one scene, particularly the long party scene in the second half with a terrific live jazz band at the back of the stage.
The primary difference between screen originals and stage adaptation is the primacy of language. The film may emphasize moments of silence, but a play spotlights language. The characters seem more willing to articulate their feelings -- or lack of feelings -- even if they don't necessarily make sense. One recognizes the lines from the films, but they take on a different role.
Yes, it helps to know the films, but it isn't necessary (the Barbican is showing them along with this stage work). The Dutch actors are superb, though none has the magnetism on screen of Anonioni's muse, Monica Vitti or the beautiful Alain Delon in THE ECLIPSE. I found the entire production to be riveting.
THE ANTONIONI PROJECT. Barbican Theatre. February 2, 2011.