Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 1 February, 2011

Two years ago Toneelgroep Amsterdam excited Barbican audiences by involving them in the action literally: they let us wander onto the stage and sit by performing actors, in effect becoming the milling citizenry in the company’s staging of Shakespeare’s Roman Tragedies. This production is the opposite of that one in so many ways, yet its complement in others.
Unlike the six-hour-plus marathon staging of Shakespeare’s three plays one after another, this version of Michelangelo Antonioni’s early-1960s trilogy L’AvventuaLa Notte and L’Éclisse weaves characters and scenes from the three together into a presentation the length only of any one of those films. Where involvement was a keynote, this time the dominant tone is alienation. Antonioni’s characters are distanced both from each other and from the meaningful aspects of the world around them; they make sexual or financial connections but not emotional or even intellectual ones.
As with The Roman Tragedies, director Ivo van Hove mediates events onstage by shooting them with video cameras and projecting the result overhead. To that initial process of distanciation, he now adds chroma-key matte techniques: virtually the entire set is solid blue, of a shade that enables the vision mixers who sit (more or less) in the orchestra pit to isolate the figures of the actors and overlay them on pre-filmed location footage. (Dutch actors playing Italian characters against the background of an American city – more distancing.) After the initial phase, this device is jettisoned: the vast video projection is used for non-matte “establishing” shots, or to close up on one character in a scene, or – in the second phase, at a party thrown by industrialist Ettore – to peer around walls and show us encounters happening offstage, sometimes contrasting those visuals with heated words being exchanged onstage. Finally, the screen is lowered entirely, with most of the final phase being acted out behind it, entirely out of our direct sight but for the projection.
Many of these techniques normally infuriate me, as working entirely counter to the theatrical fundamental of performers and audience occupying the same space and time. But van Hove, crucially, constantly modulates his situations to remind us that this is a live event we are sharing… even as he prevents us from making that full connection, so sharing also the characters’ own inabilities.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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