Persona (Riverside Studios)

Persona (Riverside Studios, until February 23rd)


One of the most controversial films of its time, which is now regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made, is adapted for the stage in a scintillating, mystifying and breathtaking production to re-open an iconic west London venue.

Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona defied definition when it premiered, with some regarding it as modernist horror, others as a tense psychological drama and still others as an erotic study of identity.

With its strong theatrical themes, the masterpiece of cinema could be said to belong on a stage and Paul Schoolman’s extraordinary visionary version opens the renovated Riverside Studios in Hammersmith with dazzling panache.

The film has been seen on stage before but surely never has it been produced in such an experimental and understanding way. This must be because it has gone back to Bergman’s own notes and directions – some of which go in a different direction to the finished film – and the result is something comprehensively satisfying.

The odd story centres on a renowned actress who is playing the role of Electra on stage but who wakes up one morning paralysed and speechless. Doctors believe her condition to be self-induced and she is sent off to a summer beach house with a nurse to look after her.

This new adaptation is so cleverly multi-layered you may find it easier to work out Pi to 150 decimal places, but the whole point is (as is the case with the film) it is very much what you want to make of it that determines your experience.

While what ensues is deeply psychoanalytical, you don’t have to be a student of Jung to appreciate what is being explored. Are both key characters having trouble with their gender identity or is the piece somehow a subtle statement about Art? Does the play demand a discovery of our true selves and the removal of the masks (or persona) that we wear? Are both women ignored by those around them – one feeling it is not worth saying anything and the other speaking a lot in a bid to be heard? Or has the actress been struck silent by the horrors of the world around her (the film includes images of the Vietnam War and persecuted Jews while this play shows contemporary photos of refugees)?

Perhaps being able to work everything out in the 90 minutes running time is a mistake. Much can be learned afterwards as you assess your response in the light of your own world experience, or if you think the dreamlike quality evoked is challenging, calming or nightmarish.

It is true that the mental and emotional complexities explored and developed in the film don’t always work in a stage production which is often more stark and unyielding. This in turn occasionally leads to a baffling pot pourri of ideas that when mixed don’t always come together. Think of a colourful cocktail that displays all of its parts beautifully in a glass but when stirred together creates something that looks sludgy and less appealing. The ending is certainly hurried and seems careless when so much attention is paid elsewhere.

What is beyond question is the high calibre of performances from the two actresses in the lead and their clarity gives them an individuality which dismisses one of the views of the film, which is that they are both sides of the same woman. There is something much more subliminal going on here.

Alice Krige always digs deep to discover the true nature of the part she is playing and her nurse, Alma, is a person of soulful intelligence not beyond engaging with long-suppressed fantasies . It is a down to earth performance with distinctive ontological depth.

Providing the balance is Nobuhle Mnccwengi’s Elizabet, who remains silent for most of the play, yet speaks volumes. While it’s almost impossible to work out what is actually going on in the character’s mind, Mnccwengi intuitively delivers the part of an actress wanting to search beneath the make-up, discovering the power of communication and language in the lack of it.

Director Paul Schoolman understands the need to retain the enigmatic quality yet ensures the story moves on uncluttered. He also plays a Narrator who perhaps unravels the truth of what is going on only seconds before the characters do themselves.

The final player in the quartet is William Close, whose accompaniment on Earth Harp is magical, adding a surreal ambience to the dreamlike narrative. This extraordinary instrument has strings stretched above the audience which means its every sound resonates around the auditorium and reverberates in one’s very bones and sinews. It is an eerie but vital otherworldly addition to the multi-dimensional piece, constantly hypnotic and unforgettable (during the second part of the run the Earth Harp will be played by Catrin Meek).

Picking up the cinematic roots, Fotini Dimou’s set and costume design is rich and expressive, with blacks, whites and greys belying the colour of the production. Providing a realistic seascape backdrop, occasionally morphing into something more unnatural, is the projection design and videography of P J McEvoy and Filip Haglund.

Make no mistake, Persona will send some audiences out from the venue’s Studio 3 bemused and feeling it is pretentiously self-indulgent, while others will exit in awe and wonderment thinking it to be an imaginative work of art.

Whatever one feels about it, it is not a production to be forgotten quickly.  Persona brilliantly takes Bergman’s classic avant-garde gem of cinema to a whole new level, creating a theatrical experience to savour.

David Guest

Images: Pamela Raith