Ingmar Bergman (adapted by Paul Schoolman)
Persona Onstage
Riverside Studios (Studio 3)

William Close with his Earth Harp, Alice Krige as Alma and Nobuhle Mngcwengi as Elizabet Credit: Pamela Raith
Alice Krige as Alma and Nobuhle Mngcwengi as Elizabet Credit: Pamela Raith
Alice Krige as Alma and Nobuhle Mngcwengi as Elizabet Credit: Pamela Raith

Bergman’s 1966 film Persona, much discussed by film critics and scholars, was highly thought of by its creator. In this and his Cries and Whispers, he felt that “working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.” What can a stage version offer?

Persona has already had stage adaptations in Sweden and by Van Hove for Toneelgroep. This version by Paul Schoolman, which is the opening production at the rebuilt Riverside Studios, gives us the Earth Harp developed by installation artist William Close. With strings that can be attached to a building or even the landscape, this is the world’s biggest harp and here its strings stretch out over the heads of the audience reverberating as Close plays the chords of the overture and then underscores the performance with his music. It’s impressive and playing it looks like a big undertaking.

But we came for the play.

Adapter and director Schoolman begins with a brief explanation of the circumstances in which the film script was written and then, with himself as narrator, offers a text taken entirely from Bergman’s script which seems to include personal comment as well as screenplay. It is not necessarily complete or in the same sequence but it is all Bergman.

It is the story of actress Elizabet Vogler who becomes temporarily paralysed while on stage in the middle of a performance of Electra and then is unable (or refuses) to speak thereafter. She is sent to stay in her doctor’s island home with a nurse, Alma, as her carer. While Elizabet is silent, Alma pours out what is bottled up inside her, confidences about sex and an abortion. The two develop a closeness that may have lesbian overtones. The film suggests a merging or exchange of personalities (in a shot that combines their faces, here we get embraces). Could Alma really be Elizabeth?

It's a plot that is not easy to follow and this production is sometimes confusing but it doesn’t have to be logical: Bergman said he hoped the film would be felt rather than understood.

Fotini Dimou’s setting is very simple but impressive: steps up to the harp’s base, grey boxes as furniture and a frame for curtains that open on the move to the island to reveal a huge video screen for Filip Haglund’s video looking out to sea from the island. The waves seem to match the play’s mood, though one ambiguous sequence, shot from a vehicle, adds a rapidly moving foreground of bushes.

Images of children (most notably one of a child arrested at gunpoint in the Warsaw ghetto) inset on screen are a reminder of childhood traumas but don’t make the impact that these references should have and, when a fight breaks out between the two women, a flask of coffee seems a very weak weapon.

If these images can’t compete with the cinema, Alice Krige’s performance as Alma compensates; it has a sustained intensity, especially honest in handling the recounting of sex with a young lad. As silent Elizabet, Nobuhle Mngcwengi has a harder time. It is crucial to be able to see her face to know what she is thinking and when downstage or on the floor that’s awkward for much of the audience. When at last she does speak, there is no time to get used to her natural accent, which doesn’t help either.

Putting over Persona’s complexities might be easier if the actors weren’t often competing with the Earth Harp. Schoolman’s narration doesn’t help either; the effect of his voice and of the harp is at times soporific. Schoolman never really establishes the rapport with the audience that a narrator needs and his brief moments centre-stage as Elizabet’s husband are a different style of acting from that he has drawn from his actresses.

This doesn’t turn Persona into theatre to match that of Berman’s cinema, perhaps because it stays too close to the original instead of rethinking it, of showing in a different way.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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