Review: Antonioni Project, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“Wie tegenwoordig voor mooie dingen geeft?”

Featuring the return of Toneelgroep Amsterdam to the Barbican, Antonioni Project is another multimedia extravaganza from the Dutch theatre company who blew many, including me, away with their six-hour Shakespeare epic, The Roman Tragedies. Under Ivo van Hove’s direction, they have built up a sterling reputation as one of the leading European companies with their innovative blending of film-making techniques into more traditional theatre and creating a whole new theatrical experience for the audience.

This work pulls together three of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960s films, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, with their common themes of couples struggling to reconcile notions of love with the reality of sex in a changing world that they feel estranged from due to their extreme materialism. The narratives of the three films are mixed, with characters from each interacting, I’d recommend reading the programme beforehand whether you know the films or not just to give you a bit of context that will prove invaluable.

With a large team of technicians sited in an ‘orchestra pit’ where the first couple of rows of seats usually are, the company use a vast range of techniques, including split-screen, blue-screen, hand-held cameras and steadicams to portray the stories, which are beamed live onto a screen above the stage, sometimes in large format onto the stage curtain, sometimes there’s just live acting and no film work at all. By varying the ways in which the material is both filmed and presented throughout, there is always something to capture the attention. 

It does have to be said though that there are moments where it does get a little overwhelming, a little difficult to figure out where your attention is best served, especially sat near the front as we were. There’s a constant tension between the live acting and the screened video but occasionally, the filmed shot would be actors reacting to an off-screen conversation which is being surtitled, but with the two (or sometimes more) different sets of actors in front of you ‘acting’, it was hard to resist watching them work. Ultimately this is an issue for any surtitled production though, the additional perspectives just making it a bit more noticeable here. 

As a play, it was a little challenging to find a way into the material. With its cast of languid characters full of ennui, swanning round on yachts and at parties, avoiding the reality of the world around them and constantly nipping round the corner for a quick bonk with the nearest person, it did seem a little remote. But as we progressed, there was an air of quiet tragedy that emerged, of these people unwilling (or maybe incapable) of changing, of finally managing to find emotional fulfilment, that became quite moving. Hans Kesting (winner of the 2009 Best Actor fosterIAN no less) did not disappoint, reining in his natural charisma as the self-absorbed Giovanni, Marieke Heebink tugged at the heartstrings as his wife Lidia (in a gorgeous black dress) desperate to regain the emotional connection she once shared with him, Janni Goslinga pulled double duty as the mysterious flighty Anna and the not-so-mysterious flirty Giulia and I also enjoyed the furtive affair between Roeland Fernhout’s Sandro and Hadewych Minis’ Claudia, her declarations on being proposed to were gorgeous. 

The technological innovation, the linguistic remove and the emotional distance of the characters means that this is ultimately a different kind of theatrical experience. It engages the head more than the heart in its indictment of this materialistic world but still manages to produce moments of emotional connection whilst pushing the boundaries of theatrical presentation in an engaging manner. And even though they’re a group that I’ve only seen twice, Toneelgroep Amsterdam come across as one of the most exciting creative companies I know and Ivo Van Hove’s work is one not to be missed. Anyone fancy coming to Amsterdam in May to see their Angels in America with me?! 

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval, despite programme advising there wouldn’t be one)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 5th February
Note: some smoking and depending how sensitive you are, there is a short moment of strobe-like flashing, a momentary bit of boobage and a brief flash of some sexually explicit images. Oh and it is performed in Dutch with English surtitles in case you weren’t aware.

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