Belgian-born director Ivo van Hove isn’t kind to the corporeal. In his productions the body seems less a source of sensual pleasure than an invitation to brutality, humiliation, and in the case of The Misanthrope, ruthless misuse of condiments. The sole van Hove character who seems to delight in her physical self is Opening Night’s Nancy, who prances around the stage, naked and sassy. The catch: She’s a ghost. But the body has never appeared more of a problem and provocation than in van Hove’s harrowing adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1972 film Cries and Whispers, performed by his company Toneelgroep Amsterdam at BAM’s Next Wave Festival.
As in his other film adaptations (Opening Night, Teorama), van Hove has not attempted a theatrical remake, but instead used the script as a starting point for a new piece. In this case, he said in a recent interview, he focused on a letter Bergman wrote, “a letter of 40 pages or something—to his actors about what he thought the film should be.” Whereas in the film, Agnes lays dying in a 19th-century manor house and most shots are suffused with red, here her final hours play out in a contemporary live-work studio splattered with the lapis glare of Yves Klein Blue.
Agnes (Chris Nietvelt), a video artist suffering from cancer, is attended by her sisters Maria (Halina Reijn) and Karin (Janni Goslinga) and her maid Anna (Karina Smulders). As the play begins Nietvelt has her head turned away from the audience, so we first view her on a video monitor, dozing in a pool of her own vomit. Once she rises, spectators can see and hear her piss, burp, and blow her nose, all while wracked by terrible internal agony, degraded and undone by her own flesh. “I’m in so much pain,” she says. To represent her death throes, she lays out a length of white canvas and, in a perverse homage to Yves Klein’s “Living Brushes” series, douses herself with blue paint and her own shit and writhes screaming, perhaps the most visceral and upsetting depiction of death I’ve ever seen staged.
As this climax occurs in the middle of the play, the second half necessarily resumes in more muted tones, as her two sisters—perhaps in the past, perhaps in the future—harm themselves and those around them. One takes a shard of glass to her vagina, the husband of the other takes a knife to his wrists, leaving dribbles of red amid the blue. When one sister attempts to touch the other affectionately, she’s met with shrieking and balled fists.
Cries and Whispers is as skillful as anything van Hove has produced, but with the exception of Agnes’s death scene, it can seem more clinical than visceral, a blue chill running through it. Van Hove suggests little possibility of communion while alive, and slim hope for renewal or rebirth after. Toward the end, Agnes seems to awaken and cries for someone to hold her. Anna obliges, but this doesn’t resurrect Agnes—it only allows her to expire again, this time more quietly. Late in the play, Maria chances upon Agnes’s diary and reads an entry in which the dead woman has written, “I received the most wonderful gift anyone can receive in this life, a gift that is called many things: togetherness, companionship, relatedness, affection.” Agnes seems to achieve this, but only once dead and only on video. We all seek for such grace, van Hove suggests, but alive and present, our bodies just get in the way.