It’s been 30+ years since I’ve seen the Bergman movie on which Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam production is based, but in any case, this production’s searing theatricality provides the same story in a medium so utterly different, reference to the original seems unnecessary. Charles Isherwood, in his New York Times’ review, called this production “clinical.” I can’t imagine what he was smoking before he saw it, if he missed the passionate and powerful emotion of this investigation into death and dying.
Perhaps his blindness to the import of gender in theatre once again mislead him, because the production analyzes in minute detail the physical and emotional costs of suffering a death, and the ways in which, much as women might desire physical and emotional connection, it remains so impossibly difficult to open ourselves to one another.
With post-modernist scenography by Jan Versweyveld, the stage is built as an environment connected by flesh and blood human beings as well as by their live video-feed images. Agnes (Chris Nietvelt) begins the performance on a hospital bed center stage, with a close-up of her vomit-caked lips and the green-yellow spit-up coloring the pillow where she lays projected on a screen above her. When she gets up, the rest of Agnes’s body is stained with feces and other bodily fluids.
Evidence of her body’s loss of control frequently recur in the play, making the performance very much about what feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz called the “volatile” female body, one whose leakages reject boundaries and containment in ways that offend and threaten a conventional patriarchal order. (No wonder Isherwood couldn’t stomach the piece.)
Agnes is dying, under the ambivalent ministrations of her two sisters—Karin (Janni Goslinga) and Maria (Halina Reign)—and the more compassionate care of her nurse and the family’s maid, Anna (Karina Smulders). While in Bergman’s film, the relationships are detailed through the intimacy of extreme close-up in a film that moves glacially through its record of primary emotions, van Hove makes of his live production a more quotidian record of the intimacies of death.
Because the play moves back and forth through time—from Agnes’s death mid-way through to an earlier moment in her illness, then back to the post-funeral familial aftermath—the linear story isn’t as important as how these characters react, often in wordless scenarios of interaction that clarify the complexity of their emotions.
Performed in Dutch, the dialogue proceeds as supertitles projected on two suspended flats above the set. Canvas walls, too, hang over the proceedings, like the art work Agnes creates and refers to throughout. But the projected words and the actors’ intonations are much less important than the physical pictures van Hove and his performers create.
While Agnes describes her unbearable pain, and reminisces in between bouts of agony about her parents and their various relationships to her and her sisters, the others observe the progress of her dying. Maria and Karin tend to her fitfully and reluctantly, their hesitations communicated by the distance they keep from Agnes’s soiled bed and from the cautious, unwilling ways they touch their sister. Maria, the more immature and impetuous of the two, brings little toys and children’s books to the bed to entertain Agnes. The dying woman appreciates the distractions, but surprise also registers on her face, that her sister thinks these childish objects will stand up against the profundity of her pain.
Maria also flirts with the doctor (Roeland Fernhout) whose impersonal ministrations to her sister can’t begin to ease her way into death. Maria and the doctor have had an affair, we learn in the play’s second half, when the two act out a moment in their relationship when he tries to resist her and she throws herself at him. The scene is notable for how the Fernhout morphs halfway through from the doctor into Maria’s husband, Joachim. As the doctor and Maria prepare to have sex, she pushes him onto the long wooden tables that have replaced Agnes’s hospital bed at the center of the set. As she rips off his shirt and prepares to undo his pants, he flings himself up and they wrestle with a new costume, redressing him as violently as he was undressed the moment before.
As he brutally shrugs himself into a sport coat, the doctor’s brusque and violent manner is replaced by the taciturn, remote affect of Maria’s husband, who proceeds to sit back down to a meal at the table and eat over his newspaper, barely grunting in response to her entreaties. The transformation is powerful and apt—that the same man could be the vessel for passion and lovelessness demonstrates van Hove’s point about the unpredictability and even the impossibility of real human connection.
But when Joachim leaves the table, he clutches Maria to his chest wordlessly, exiting only to return shortly after with his chest covered in blood, holding a knife before him that drips with the tacky cells of his self-immolation. The image is shocking and effective. Van Hove’s refusal to respect the differences between reality and fantasy make for powerful theatrical metaphors, in which actors’ bodies, the stage effects (never meant to be convincing, only allegorical), and the performances are pressed into service to communicate physically what can’t be said or expressed otherwise. The actors’ bodies wear the play’s subtext. That none of the other characters comment on Joachim’s gaping wound, for instance, illustrates the chilling consequences of our inability to communicate our deepest, truest emotions.
Likewise, Agnes’s death scene is a beautiful, fierce theatrical metaphor for excruciating pain and a soul’s resistance to leaving its body. Nietvelt, as Agnes, rolls out a stage-wide piece of glossy white paper on which she centers herself. Then she proceeds to pour blue paint over her head, after which she rolls around on the paper, body-painting in a corporeal representation of her agony. She moves her arms back and forth as though she’s making a snow angel (an image that returns beautifully at the production’s end), and flings herself across the paper until she’s covered in vibrant blue from head to toe.
Agnes uncovers a large industrial bucket near the stage of her dying and pours from it a brown fluid that mixes with the blue blood, a searing representation of the body’s failure at death, as feces and body fluids co-mingle to overflow its borders. Just before she dies, Anna approaches Agnes, lifting the dying woman’s arms to wrap them around her neck. The image of the two sitting together, Agnes exhausted by her death throes, her blue face as elongated and sorrowful as a woman in a Modigliani painting, offers a moving, pieta-like portrait of the final moments of someone who’s railed against death but finally can’t escape its arrival.
In fact, one of the production’s most mournful reminders is of the loneliness of death. Agnes is surrounded by women who sit vigil with her, but that moment of pain on the white paper illustrates that death is a territory the dying walk alone. And although her sisters and Anna live on, van Hove suggests that their living, too, is solitary and unobserved. For example, when Karin and her husband have a loveless exchange that echoes Maria’s with Joachim, Karin breaks a wine glass and uses one of its shards to cut her vagina, dripping her own blood between her legs and staining her slip. Once again, none of the other characters notice, and she continues on with her actions as though the wound is invisible.
In Cries and Whispers’ final moments, Agnes speaks to us from someplace after her death, touring us through her art work like a guide through what had been heaven before illness made her life hell. The canvas-cubed walls of the set descend to the stage floor, so that projections of Agnes art work can light up the screens. Close-ups of body parts waving on the snow slowly pull out to reveal winter-wear-clad people lying on the ground, making the angels that Agnes echoed at her death.
As the camera moves back farther and farther, the group of people makes a singular geometric shape in the snow, all moving different parts of the whole. Agnes notes wryly that she used to think that she make art to understand life. Now, she understands that art is made to stave off death.
With Cries and Whispers, van Hove does both.
The Feminist Spectator
Cries and Whispers, directed by Ivo van Hove, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2011 Next Wave Festival, October 28, 2011.