Riverside Studios, London – until 23 February 2020
Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona is, according to eminent professor Thomas Elsaesser, “for film critics and scholars what climbing Everest is for mountaineers: the ultimate professional challenge”. I wish that was something I’d been aware of before attending the staged version at the newly reopened Riverside Studios; I might then have felt more ready to critique this dense study of women in emotional turmoil which left me feeling the need to do some follow up work to make sense of it all.
Elizabet is an actress who has suddenly decided (either consciously or subconsciously) to take a vow of silence; Alma is a nurse assisting her with the convalescent process. Their close proximity to each other over a significant period of time draws them into a relationship which at first seems to be doing both women some good. However, an act of betrayal brings underlying tensions to the surface and Alma, particularly, revisits incidents from her past which cause extreme emotional distress. Ultimately both women are left (permanently?) emotionally scarred.
While I can fully imagine the piece working on film – indeed it seems to be generally hailed as a masterpiece – on stage I fear it fares less well. There are only three actors and one of these is virtually silent throughout. Thus, the heavy lifting is left to Alice Krige as the tormented Alma who, in contrast to her patient, never seems to stop talking. Alma is using this as her form of emotional release but I’m afraid I just found the relentless nature of the monologue during the first third of the play quite tedious.
One section featuring a story from her past about a sexual encounter on a beach with two young men was particularly heavy going – I was also given to reflection about how such dialogue would have been received if it had featured a middle-aged man talking about young girls. However, both Krige and Nobuhle Mngcwengi as Elizabet have undoubted stage presence. Physically, though, they are quite different – which seems a little perverse given that one of the main strands of the piece is how the two women become indistinguishable and merge into a single personality.
The third actor is Paul Schoolman who also wrote the adaptation and directs. Briefly taking on the characters of a doctor and Elizabet’s husband, Schoolman‘s main function is to act as narrator/chorus. Incorporated into his dialogue are staging directions, remarks and notes made by Bergman himself. Somewhat reminiscent of a DVD commentary, I found this aspect intrusive and unnecessary and preferred to concentrate on the duo at the heart of the story. As a director I found his pacing of the piece rather languid, though the middle section (post betrayal) did flare into something more exciting with a greater sense of conflict – alas this was short lived.
My main problem, however, was to do with the staging. I have no idea how deep the stage is in this newly refurbished venue but the playing area for Persona is a relatively narrow strip placed very close to the audience at floor level. While this may be fine for those in the first few rows, from further back some of the sightlines were extremely poor. In certain scenes where the actors were sat on the floor (e.g. a scene in a rowing boat) they disappeared from view altogether. I also sometimes had difficulty in picking up the actors’ voices and if one cannot see OR hear the actors then there is not much left to retain interest!
The one resounding success of the evening was the inclusion of mood music which underscored and punctuated the action – as it would do in a film. An original score was provided by installation artist/composer/performer William Close playing his own invention the earth harp. This massive stringed instrument has to be experienced to be believed. It enveloped the audience (literally) in an ominous pulsating soundscape reminiscent of whale song and brought some sorely needed life to the onstage proceedings. I also found the cinematic backdrop from videographer Filip Haglund a useful reminder that what we were watching started its life as a film.
The Riverside Studios new complex is undoubtedly a marvellous addition to London’s cultural life and in choosing to open with a psychodrama such as Persona they are certainly throwing down a cultural gauntlet; I guess that they can safely leave the more populist stuff to any number of other venues. While I can say I fully appreciated the new building and the potential it has, I can’t in all conscience say I enjoyed my first theatrical experience of the new space. I don’t think it bodes well if, at the end, one has to do some research to get a better grip of what one has just seen. Mind you, doing this did indicate that there’s a strong possibility that I’m mistaken in my assessment. It transpires that film critic Peter Cowie wrote of the original film, “Everything one says about Persona may be contradicted; the opposite will also be true”. So. There you go then.