The 1966 film Persona, directed by Ingmar Bergman in Sweden, is often stated to be one of the greatest films ever made. It is a psychological horror about two young women, Alma the carer and Elizabet the patient, in the course of one summer.
The stage production needs an introduction to set out why it exists. We meet a professor (Paul Schoolman, who also adapted and developed this show) who was in a hospital with Bergman, where the filmmaker wrote Persona while suffering from pneumonia. He honours the film by replaying it, with “notes and idiosyncratic stage directions” in his mind.
The Riverside Studios has undergone considerable redevelopment from a poky, cold, leaky arts centre to a swanky complex with a new entrance facing the Thames. Persona is its first production in new theatre, Studio 3 (Studio 2 will open in the spring; Studio 1 is devoted to television).
Persona is sparsely staged with two box structures which double as beds, some rocks, a thermos, a table with jugs of juice, and over all this, the giant strings of the Earth Harp, a huge musical installation played by LA-based inventor William Close which goes literally over the heads of half of the audience.
The music is improvised, deep in sound and vibration, and sets the scene in an unsettling way, weaving itself in and out of the action over the next hour and a half. There’s a screen behind the stage which shows flickers of moving and static images, the backdrop of the sea.
Elizabet, an actress, is wilfully silent, even catatonic when we first meet her, and medical opinion says she has willed herself this way. Alma frets she “may not be able to manage her, spiritually” but slowly both women start to merge in identity and personality.
Translating such an iconic and complex film to the stage was always going to be a difficult task. The slowness of pace and the richness of language which works in one medium sometimes feels wrong for theatre, and yet I enjoyed the performances of both Alice Krige (too old for Alma but delicate, fragile, at times just a whisper) and Nobuhle Mngcwengi (who retains a cool and mocking gaze with the odd burst of warmth).
The horrors of Bergman’s vision have been toned down somewhat, with visual cues removed or reduced; yet the sexually explicit passage (a sort of Scandinavian Molly Bloom from Ulysses, in a way) told by Alma which caused censorship problems for the film remains intact.
Although the film had a uncredited narrator – Bergman himself – I felt that Schoolman’s frequent commentary was not entirely necessary. Much better to show, not tell, as the depiction of Alma’s hallucination reveals.
Persona is a good choice to open this new theatre and try out the space, sound, sightlines and tech. It will not, and should not, replace the Bergman film, but it is an interesting exercise in the possibilities of live performance.
Persona continues until the 23 February atthe Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Photo credits by Pamela Raith.