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Belvoir presents PERSONA, a FRAUGHT OUTFIT production. Based on the film by Ingmar Bergman. Conceived by Adena Jacobs, Dayna Morrissey and Danny Pettingill in the Upstairs Belvoir Theatre.

PERSONA is a film made by Ingmar Bergman in 1966 – writer, director. It is regarded by some to be his masterpiece and is rated highly as one of the top – greatest – films ever made. Much discourse can be found as people attempt to analyze every element of the film. Study the critical essays and you can be bewildered. If you go on line it will overwhelm you. At best, I simply respond to it as an ‘enigmatic’ cinematic entity. One that has me, always, in a kind of limbo of understanding. Puzzled, challenged and bemused, each sensation in turn. The meditation of it, after viewing, is an exercise of immense proportion, and never easy, and the source of much “nerdeyism” (invented word!). To talk, discuss, more of it, with movie addicts (fans), can be a very disconcerting (and amusing) experience.

A Melbourne company, FRAUGHT OUTFIT, have created a play of the film, and the Belvoir have imported it to Sydney. The director, Adena Jacobs, is one of two artists recently appointed to Belvoir as Resident Directors, the other being Anne-Louise Sarks, to replace Simon Stone, recently resigned. So why create a piece of theatre out of this cinematic masterpiece? Why, indeed? The Sydney Theatre Company attempted a stage version of Bergman’s FACE TO FACE, in August, last year and for no new insight or any artistic gain, as far as I could observe. The film, superior in every way, every, every way. I felt it was better experienced on one’s home screen, on DVD, than in the theatre production by Simon Stone and Andrew Upton – the film, a superior experience by far.

PERSONA, indeed, most of Ingmar Bergman’s work is inspirational, and any ambitious and creative artist would want to, does dream, of working for such an artist. In our living times, The Coen Brothers, Pedro Almodovar, Michael Haneke, Ang Lee, Terrence Malick, Jane Campion are just a few of the International film luminaries of a similar working status to Bergman’s that I would dream, or, aim to work with, today. Perhaps, FRAUGHT OUTFIT thought that, re-imagining PERSONA for the stage, could provide some approximation of this Bergman experience – a sense of collaborating with him, beyond the grave.

PERSONA, does have, after all, two challenging roles for women and a tantalising textual schema – in Kantianism, a transcendental product of imagination, mediating, between the universality of the pure concept (which is opaque to sense) and the particularity of sense (which is opaque to the understanding). The program notes quote from the famous essay by Susan Sontag, BERGMAN’S PERSONA (from STYLES OF RADICAL WILL -1969): “It is not that Bergman is pessimistic about life and the human situation – as if it were a question of opinions – but rather that the quality of its sensibility, when he is faithful to it, has only a single subject: the depths in which consciousness drowns. If the maintenance of personality requires safeguarding the integrity of masks, then the truth about life as a whole is the shattering of the whole facade – behind which lies an absolute cruelty.” (Heavy stuff!!) Bergman, in the film that the audience sees, uses many technical ‘tricks’ and tool revelations that show the masquerades of all the film artists – behind camera as well as the masks of the central human characters and their extraordinary philosophic , metaphysical, scripted encounter of the external mask, persona, with the internal one – their own and each others. Elizabeth Vogler played by Liv Ullmann, an actress who loses her need to talk whilst playing Electra on the stage, is placed in convalescence under the care of a very talkative nurse, Alma played by Bibi Andersson, at a sea side house. The film making and the performances are intense: great – a full fathom deep!

In this play adaptation, Meredith Penman as Elizabeth, and Karen Sibbing as Alma, give zealous, good performances. Good, but not great. And, unfortunately, it needs a ‘greatness’ from the performers in this adapted material to really sustain an audiences’ absolute focus of attention, that will take them beyond what they are seeing and hearing, to be led to search for the ‘mystery’ of the world beyond what it is literally happening in front of them. Ms Penman and Sibbing are ambitious and admirable in that pursuit, but did not seem to have the real communicative confidence of skills to take us into that transcendent place. Sincere but not deeply authentic in communication. (Compare and contrast the actor’s skills on view in the recent production of THE MAIDS). To be able, then, to perceive the depths of the human psyche given by Bergman and Ms Ullmann and Andersson, as translated on film, by those actors with skills of a very great craftsmanship (in their form – film), and the re-assuring solidity of charismatic presence of other-worldliness – an emotional profundity, and view Ms Penman and hear Ms Sibbing, and a lesser experience is had. The fact that the work of the cinematic artists exists and is able to be placed as a direct comparison to the live staged work is part of the risk of re-imagining, re-creating a filmed masterpiece, like PERSONA – the source material. Like it or not, fair or not, the comparison of the two experiences will be inevitable, for the interested observers of the Art forms.

It is not just the performances (Daniel Schlusser and Brandon Easson complete the acting company) that undermine the effect of the production but that of the design (Dayna Morrissey). It is not the visual choices, which seem to be very specific and thoughtful, but the quality of the ‘look’ of the production – a too small budget, perhaps, prevents the visuals to vibrate with the invitation of the psychological ‘mystery’. Their ‘poverty’ in quality keeps the work too conspicuously ‘grounded’ and not an invitation to suspend our disbelief to believe in the metaphysics of the text – the badly painted white gloss floor, the cheap-looking plywood veneer on the walls, the noisy white curtain tractions, for instance. However, the sound design, beginning with a scratched, static overlay of the mellifluous strings of Mantovani and his orchestra, with gushy romantic tunes, to the haunting ‘ping’ of hospital, and the glittering of rain, to the breaking of water on the sea shore by Russell Goldsmith, creates an atmosphere that eludes to a production possibility, that is not quite captured elsewhere. It invites an imaginative lateral entry to an intrigue of a bigger universe swirling about us.

It seems to me that the re-imagining of a masterpiece of any kind is an extraordinarily brave thing to do. What the artists experience in attempting it, what they learn by doing it, probably, cannot be underestimated. But just as the Gus Van Sant’s version of the Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960-1998), or, Steven Soderberg version (as editor) of Andre Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS (1972-2002), or, even Michael Haneke’s re-make of his German version of FUNNY GAMES, (1997- 2007) in the USA, or the stage adaptation of Pedro Almodovar’s ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER by Samuel Adamson for the Old Vic in 2007, when compared and contrasted, do not measure up to the original. Neither, do the two recent Sydney experiences of the Bergman stage adaptations: FACE TO FACE or PERSONA measure up to the existing films. It is interesting that Bergman was not only a great film director but also a great man of the theatre, and yet, he never attempted to turn any of his screenplays into theatre exercises. Maybe he knew what was possible (or, he was just over that material).Certainly, the PERSONA production from Adena Jacobs and FRAUGHT OUTFIT seemed to me a more intellectually rigorous reading of the original than the FACE TO FACE exercise, but suffers, ultimately, because of its , relatively, lesser quality in delivery.

PERSONA at Belvoir is an interesting experience for the Bergman fan. If you don’t know the work at all and enjoy theatre of real challenge than it might also be worth the cost. If you are not sure, check out the DVD, then decide. I would have rathered, a new original Australian play that dared explore the density of our existence that Bergman dares too, in PERSONA. The Belvoir resources aimed at really new Australian work. Goodness knows, an Australian writer, an artist, of that provoking stature might be welcomed. It certainly is needed.(Check out my response to the new Australian play, BEACHED.) How about a production of the late plays of Patrick White: SIGNAL DRIVER – a Morality Play for the Times (1982); NETHERWOOD (1983) or SHEPHERD ON THE ROCKS (1987), if there is no real new writing in that territory or genre.? I have never seen those plays.

1 replies to “Persona”

  1. The production begins with a boy alone on a floor reading a book in his lap. We watch him read. We begin to wonder…what is going to happen? He takes out a pair of binoculars, trains them on the book in his lap and continues reading. For some time. We begin to scratch our pimples. Then the boy lifts the binoculars and looks through them in our direction. Slowly his gaze moves across the auditorium. If he is affected by what he sees, he does not show it. With the binoculars reaching the end of their sweep, someone breaks the fourth wall in a surprising way and waves at the young actor on the stage. No reaction. He puts down the binoculars. He goes. We don't see him again.
    Well it's one way to start a show.
    As you point out Kevin, we hear hardly anything from one of the actresses – this show is big on mysterious silences…if only they could have worked in a little tribute too to the opening scene on the breakwater in "The French Lieutenant's Woman"! – and the one character who talks easily speaks in a Scandinavian accent (Swedish, I guess.)I don't recall any dialogue that identifies where they are, and as the essence of the play is one person's extraordinary retreat into silence and another's descent into despair as she attempts to draw the silent one out of herself, I began to wonder whether this stage adaptation really needed to remain anchored in the geographic world of its source. After all, an actress renowned for her classical roles in Australia might just as easily decide to stop speaking – no? One can easily imagine some of our finest getting depressed – for a little while, certainly. So why not make a claim for the universality of this story by taking it off the smorgasboard and playing it 'in our own voice'? I admired the commitment of the two actors, moments of ferocity and moments of playfulness they created, but finally I felt a little impatient: I did not leave the theatre with much greater understanding or certainty as to why the "actress" had stopped speaking. The tale we eventually hear of an unwanted pregnancy and anguished early experience of motherhood does not come from the silent one, nor does she appear to confirm it, and it doesn't easily gel with that baffling early glimpse of a boy at play. Perhaps I should add that on the evening I saw it, there was very hearty applause from a near full house.

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