Cinematic Theatre: The Antonioni Project
Although director Ivo van Hove disagreed with me, it seems a very modern thing to combine theatre and cinema in a way that conspicuously blends elements of both. Ignoring the recent fad of casting Hollywood stars in London theatres, directors who have a foot in both worlds are bringing new types of experiences to the theatrical stage, ones that have never been seen before, due to recent advances in camera and projection technology.
The Antonioni Project, by theatre company Toneelgroep Amsterdam, combines the screenplays of three films that Michelangelo Antonioni directed in the early 1960s – L’avventura, La notte and L’eclisse – plus, as I learned from the director during our interview, a coda taken from Il deserto rosso (1964). Presenting dramatised versions of film on stage isn’t a new idea, however, Ivo van Hove presents this remake of Antonioni’s trilogy as live cinema, starting off with a first act that represents the cinematic technique of the blue screen live on stage: in front of a three-dimensional set painted blue, the actors say their lines with minimal props – a wheelchair here, a suitcase there. This is cinema as live magic show, filmed by cameramen as we watch, using a mixture of handheld cameras, dollies and shoulder-mounted rigs, and projected on a Cinemascope-sized screen above them, with the blue backdrop replaced by American cityscapes, as on screen we now see the characters interact in a glass corridor above a busy road.
The director says he doesn’t want the technology or visuals to detract from the drama and emotions, but in this respect, at least for this member of the audience, he failed: the effect is so startling that I found myself missing some of the dialogue as I was mesmerized by this astonishing technical feat, which is facilitated by a bank of computers and technicians mixing the signal and subtitling the image in the orchestra pit as the actors perform on stage. If van Hove had just remade Antonioni’s films as another film, then we might call him misguided as there’s no point in remaking a film that can’t be improved on, but by deconstructing the filmmaking process – showing CGI superimposition and cinematic rushes live – this becomes a play that not only adapts cinema but is about cinema as well.
Antonioni’s three screenplays intersect and overlap, and while the production’s 145-minute running time is a little excessive, there is a point to the combination, as scenes in each story reflect and complement scenes in the others. The three-act structure of the production is separated by different staging techniques. The first third uses the amazing blue screen process I mentioned before. The second uses the screen above the stage to expand the theatrical space, so that when actors leave the stage, the camera follows them and we see additional environments normally hidden by walls and the extent of our field of vision. The third act is almost entirely projected, with the actors hidden behind a new screen (normally the safety curtain in a theatre) that has descended and covered the entire visible space within the proscenium arch – this again is a technical marvel, an image of almost IMAX proportions that is being filled with images being shot live behind the screen on video camera, a level of detail and digital resolution that was inconceivable only three years ago when I interviewed the technical manager at the BFI IMAX cinema. Occasionally during this last act, the actors come out from behind the screen and then by being filmed in front of it and projected on, this creates a double or triple exposure, an ethereal effect that would be equally at home in a production of one of Shakespeare’s faerie stories or a U2 concert.
However, this production isn’t just something to be appreciated as a technical marvel, as the direction is gripping and the use of space involving, inventive and imaginative. The cast is uniformly strong and the only complaint I’d have with the entire production is that the large ensemble cast – 17 actors plus band and cameramen – combined with numerous characters and plot strands, makes it often a little hard to follow who’s going out with whom and who’s cheating on whom. That said, this is an exquisite production about human interaction in microcosm: infidelities, confessions of love and betrayal, belated crushes, disappearances, exits and entrances. As cinema itself tries to find a new level of spectacle with the current fad for 3D competing with bigger and bigger screens in people’s homes, this is the most three-dimensional cinema of all, with each performance unique, as no two nights will be exactly the same.
The Antonioni Project is followed at The Barbican by a production of The Blue Dragon by Robert Lepage, a great filmmaker in his own right, whose theatrical productions use elements of cinema. Meanwhile, after Anthony Minghella’s production of Madam Butterfly in 2005, the English National Opera is currently occupied with a production of Lucrezia Borgia directed by Mike Figgis – which will be filmed and projected at cinemas around the UK in 3D on February 23 – and is being followed by The Damnation of Faust directed by Terry Gilliam in May. As the promise of 3D in regular and IMAX cinemas began to wane about five minutes into the first screening of Avatar, perhaps the London stage is the real home for cinema that wants to occupy more than two dimensions.