Schoolman's staged version of Persona is a postmodern car crash, finds Tom Lock Griffiths
This play is an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 Swedish psychological art-house movie Persona, which starred Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. It centres around a young working-class nurse named Alma (Andersson) and her patient, the well-known stage actress Elisabet Vogler (Ullmann), who has stopped talking and is seemingly in a state of nervous collapse. For a period of recovery and respite, the pair move to a summer cottage, where Alma cares for Elisabet, confides in her and begins having trouble distinguishing herself from her patient.
It is a bold and furiously modern piece of filmmaking which, seen in the current landscape of the vogue among new filmmakers for the psychological thriller, see Saint Maude, by Rose Glass (2019), Beast, by Michael Pearce (2017), Apostasy, by Daniel Kokotajlo (2017), Make-Up, by Claire Oakley (2019) and so on; Persona is a film that has aged remarkably well.
There is nothing to suggest that, in a world brimming with adaptations - from novel to stage, from stage to screen, and so on and so on, that a transmutation from art house cinema into theatre production, cannot or should not, work. Being familiar with the original film, I went to this production sincerely hoping it would.
Introducing the play from centre stage, director Paul Schoolman informs us he was sick in the same hospital in Sweden by happenstance that writer/director Bergman convalesced while writing the script for Persona. And as a result, it set him to wondering what Bergman was imagining, about all the different ways you can ‘stage’ a story like this and the very nature of film and art itself. It’s an essayistic conceit, not in itself a bad thing, though Schoolman’s pompous and wooden delivery, warns of a difficult performance ahead.
Olivier Award winner Alice Krige, who also produced the play, makes her return to the London stage after two decades working in Hollywood movies and on hit TV shows. Appearing alongside her partner, Paul Schoolman (who directs and appears throughout as The Narrator), she plays Nurse Alma and Nobuhle Ketelo plays Elisabet Vogler.
Incomprehensibly, they are also joined on stage by an ‘Earth Harp’. A large musical instrument with 50-foot strings attached to the auditorium walls which will turn the theatre itself into a giant instrument. The Earth Harp earned its inventor William Close a finalist slot on ‘America’s Got Talent’ and it was recently named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest playable stringed musical instrument. So, there you go.
What emerges is a postmodern car crash. And a dull one at that. It is supremely un self-aware, (or is that too self-aware) and fails even on its own terms.
It fails to justify Schoolman’s introduction at the top of the play, and doesn’t show successfully why it’s necessary, to (re)present the original work in this way.
It fails to justify its counter intuitive casting. Alice Krige’s performance as Nurse Alma grates against the essentially youthful, working-class woman Alma was intended to be. Alma’s working-class nurse is, of course, in a fundamentally subservient position to wealthy middle-class professional actor (Vogler), but in falling in love with her and then kicking back when she feels betrayed, all against societal norms, is the essential character dynamic of the original.
To flip this on his head and cast the former part with an older, well-spoken, middle-class actor, ‘kicking back’ against a mostly mute woman of colour is a cringingly bad idea. Part of the point of the film too, is that the two women do in fact look very alike, and this adds to their sense of dissolving into each other. This becomes an impossible leap in this production, and nothing is gained in this loss.
It also fails to justify the awkward, even at times seedy intrusion of Schoolman into what is a story about a relationship between two women. Bergman of course himself a man, did write – certainly for his time - complex and interesting parts for women, and in the film, he creates a space where two women, can build an intimate, albeit toxic, relationship without the presence of husbands, doctors, lovers or other men.
That Schoolman sits on and watches as Alma recounts her sexual exploits, feels voyeuristic and an unwelcome breach of privacy, undermining the deeply gendered intention behind Alma and Vogler’s connection. While the press notes indicate that the narrator is speaking Bergan’s own thoughts, Bergman at least had the sense not to write himself onto the screen, peaking through the curtains.
It fails to justify the use of the ‘Earth Harp’ either; in fact, its single timbre while pleasant to begin with, steam-rolls any dramatic shape by consistency communicating only one emotional note. The less said about that the better.
Lastly, and centrally, it fails to justify the adaptation of the film into a play. If a theatrical adaptation makes the decision to use constant film projection on the backdrop and even includes the famous tracking shot among the beach, it is surely not managing to hold its nerve and successfully transmute from one form to the other. It is a partial transmutation at best and doesn’t persuade that the endeavour brings any greater insight than is found in the original. That being the case, surely well left alone.
I can say sincerely no pleasure has been taken in writing this uncompromising review, certainly not when I was so looking forward to this production.
But it has to be so, because this play is dangerous. Firstly, because it might put you off seeing this important and still relevant film (which I urge you to do), but also it may put you off adapting art house cinema for the stage... maybe after all that can still work. It just doesn’t here.
Ingmar Bergman’s Persona
a new stage adaptation
London, W6 9BN
21 January - 23 February, 2020
Tickets: £40, £30, £12.50