Filmmaker Ingmar Bergman has long been celebrated as an auteur, his movies ripe for many interpretations. However, his 1966 film, Persona is the ‘Holy Grail’ for critical analysis, channelled straight from the unconscious and written when he was delirious with pneumonia. With this in mind, can such a milestone of independent cinema be successfully adapted as a stageplay? Directed by Paul Schoolman and using Bergman’s unseen notes to shape aspects of his adaptation, this production of Persona marks Riverside Studios’ inaugural show – the first since its refurbishment began in 2014.
Elisabet Volger (Nobuhle Ketelo) is a successful, well-known actress who has just finished playing Elektra on the stage. However, since then she has been found at home in a petrified state, completely rigid. Medical staff have determined that there is nothing physically wrong with Elisabet, so either her inability to move is psychosomatic, or it is a deliberate act of her will. But why would somebody do that, except for an explicit purpose…?
Seconded to take care of Elisabet, Sister Alma (Alice Krige) is not sure if she’s the right person for the task. But looking into Elisabet’s eyes, there’s no mistaking there’s someone present, someone who has a story to tell…
In terms of the play’s plot and themes, there are obvious overtures to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir that depicted his post-stroke existence with ‘locked-in syndrome’. Then there are links to plays such as Whose Life Is It Anyway? and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, where characters who are unable to communicate or move are present.
Schoolman himself plays a few minor roles, plus the ‘new’ character of ‘the Narrator’ – using Bergman’s own words and giving context to the genesis of the project. However, the play is very much about the relationship of the two women.
Eliciting an ethereal atmosphere, the ‘Earth Harp’ – which was played from William Close in the early shows – is played by Catrin Meek for all performances in February. Stretching from one corner of the stage to over the audience itself, the electronic ‘strings’ are evocative of the yarns that the Fates traditionally spun that control the whole of human destiny. A subliminal clue if ever there was one.
Persona is a meditative piece that subtly connects the angst of the mind with the grim reality of world events. In many respects, its more akin to the questioning nature of another Bergman fim, The Seventh Seal.
© Michael Davis 2020
Persona runs at Riverside Studios, London until 23rd February.