Unlike Macbeth or any other mainstay of the theatre,
his creation constitutes a true premiere in every sense: “You really have to think for
the first time about how to put these pieces on the stage because it is a totally different
language to film.”
This is certainly not the first time that van Hove has adapted films for stage.
Amidst his impressive portfolio he has tackled two Ingmar Bergman pieces including
Cries and Whispers (1972). This film focuses on the character of Agnes who
on her deathbed is unable to find love or connect emotionally with anyone around her.
In the film the predominant colour is red to highlight blood and sexual repression, but
van Hove saw Yves Klein Blue dominate the set and made the piece a less religious
and more existential experience. He took a description that Bergman provided,
but didn’t develop, that Agnes had vague artistic ambitions, and made her into a
performance artist who dies under the lens of her own camera.
In short, van Hove always develops those aspects of a film that he feels will
create a worthwhile theatrical experience. With the Antonioni Project,
the trilogy of films – L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961) and
L’eclisse (1962) – are all concerned about the alienation of man in the modern
world. Each focuses on a different couple, and yet van Hove was struck by how the
characters in the three stories mirrored each other, almost representing the same
people at different stages in their lives. He therefore felt it made sense to combine the
three movies into one theatre piece which at 140 minutes is roughly the length of one
So why do this project now? Van Hove says that different things will appeal to
him at different times in his life. In this instance, the films “talk about mid-life crisis.
They talk about relationships when you have had experience of relationships for a
long time.” He also feels that Antonioni’s films have become relevant once more.
As in the early 1960s, we are in a transitional era where we know that the solutions
trotted out in the past – communism, fascism and raw capitalism – do not work,
but have little idea of what will. In our desperate search for a twenty-first century
direction we are just as lost as the bourgeois couples in the film, and he is fascinated
by how such ideological aimlessness can impact upon individual behaviour. Van
Hove believes that the films “talk about individuals in a society in a way that I
don’t find in plays that are around. They give something extra.”
Antonioni's films "talk about individuals in a society in a way that I
don’t find in plays that are around" - Ivo van Hove
Van Hove feels that the language in the films is quite simple, but that theatre’s
task is to bring out what is written between the lines. This is why, as with many of
his projects, the characters are filmed live and projected instantaneously onto large
screens. He stresses that he has no interest in showing off plush technology for its
own sake. The film is there to bring the audience closer to the story and the people,
and it emphasises the characters’ despair and superficiality.
Because the filming is subservient to a higher purpose, its style varies throughout
the evening. At the start, the emphasis is on introducing the characters. A party scene
then produces one long take (as a steadicam might achieve), while the ending sees the
actors play from behind the screen so that the film dominates and reveals every single
eye movement. These video designs are by Brooklyn-based Tal Yarden, while the
play’s designer is van Hove’s collaborator of thirty years, Jan Versweyveld.
Van Hove has also directed films, operas and for television. While with films,
however, directors can cut and edit all they like to produce their perfect vision, in
the theatre they can never entirely control the live experience, and van Hove never
underestimates the importance of his actors. When performing the Antonioni
Project in Antwerp at the start of this year the computers failed one night,
meaning that, while the cameras still worked, the lights did not. When van Hove
explained this to the audience they urged the play to start anyway and so the first few
scenes went ahead with minimal lighting. Many of the visual elements were lost, but
the overall experience still worked thanks to the talents of the 17-strong cast.
You can be pretty certain that there won’t be a repeat at the Barbican this week,
but it is the ultimate sign of a strong play that a key part can fail and yet the whole
The Antonioni Project is at the Barbican from 1 – 5 February 2011. For tickets and further information visit Barbican.org.uk