Director Ivo Van Hove has often deconstructed classic works, such as Hedda Gabler and The Little Foxes, where the main characters are only hanging on to life — if at all — by a thread in the end. In Cries and Whispers, his devastating adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1972 film at BAM’s Harvey Theater, Van Hove shows us this sort of desperation through a different prism.
The terminally ill protagonist, Agnes (Chris Nietvelt), has accepted her death while embracing everything she loves about life. She’s a video artist who focuses on expansive outdoor spaces, and we get to see her work juxtaposed with her suffering and the antiseptic room to which she’s confined. It’s projected on a screen nearby her hospital bed, where her sisters, Karin (Janni Goslinga) and Maria (Halina Reijn), come to visit her and make their peace.
They are not a particularly close family and struggle with what to say to their dying sister, spending most of their time denying the reality of the situation and assuring her that everything will be okay. It’s the nurse, Anna (Karina Smulders), who ironically provides the most comfort for Agnes and spends the most time with her. Bergman and Van Hove don’t shy away from the paradoxes inherent in death, which is both inevitable and very mysterious.
Death is also messy in Van Hove’s production, both figuratively and literally. In her final moments, Agnes is covered in paint and writhes about for several minutes on a canvas, leaving her mark indelibly on the stage before she makes her exit. It’s beautiful and terrifying, the culmination of her work and everything she has strived to achieve.
After Agnes dies, the priest (Hugo Koolschijn), says a prayer he must have said a thousand times, but as the nurses wheel her body out of the room, he’s struck with a loss he can’t quite explain. Gazing at her lifeless body, he tells her that God has found her worthy to endure this suffering, and then asks her to plead our case to him. It’s a devastatingly beautiful moment that shows just how little we grasp of our purpose in the larger picture.