Marring Ingmar – Review of Belvoir’s Persona
Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona is widely considered to be one of the cornerstones of 20th century cinema. The film is confronting, menacing and unsettling. Bergman however, was a true master of film and a large part of what creates meaning in Persona is the way in which the cinematic techniques are utilized. The challenge then for director Adena Jacobs and her co-adaptors is to transpose a story, which is intrinsically linked and embedded in film, onto stage without losing any of its meaning or impact.
Overtly Persona tells a simple story: during a performance of Electra renowned actress, Elisabeth Vogler, falls mute. Physically and mentally she is perfectly healthy, so why then is she silent? It is decided that she should go to the coast to recuperate and is accompanied by her nurse, Alma. While there, Elisabeth maintains her silence and, for the first time, Alma finds a ready and willing ear. Gradually, she opens up to the mute actress. It’s at this point that something unsettling begins to occur: Alma and Elisabeth’s personalities start to merge with one another.
Identity is the big theme in Persona, as the title would suggest. As an actor, Elisabeth’s job is to adopt the persona of the characters she portrays. In life too we adopt personas: we play the role of the friend, the professional, the student, the teacher, the partner and we can change our personas at will to suit any situation. For Elisabeth though, one role, that of the mother, has become false. She is unable to love her son and can no longer bear to adopt the false gestures the role demands. Mutism is thus her escape from this false persona. For Alma too, persona is important. At the beginning of the play she has adopted the role of the professional nurse, yet as the action continues, this drops away. She gradually reveals her inner self, yet this in turn vanishes as she becomes more and more like Elisabeth.
It may be unfair to compare the play to the film, especially given the position the film holds. Indeed, the theatre-makers suggest that they have offered a ‘theatrical response’ to Bergman’s story, rather than a straight adaptation. Yet the script is largely the same, and the production’s title shares the films’. Inevitably, this invites comparison. Thus it is unavoidable that fans of the Bergman classic will ultimately be disappointed with this adaptation. No doubt it was a bold move to even attempt such a project. Bergman was able to use focus, camera angles, over lay shots, even allow the film itself to burn up at one point, all to further his identity theme. Jacobs has not been able to find the theatrical equivalent for most of this and ends up relying on the script alone to communicate the play’s message. However, Jacobs has made a much larger mistake: as stated above, a large part of Persona is the unsettling and confronting atmosphere Bergman was able to generate. One feels that in an attempt to achieve this Jacobs decided to go with full frontal nudity and a sex scene. There is a good argument that sex should never be directly portrayed on stage, and this production certainly backs it up. How can you tell it failed? Because the scene produced laughter from the audience; this isn’t supposed to be a humorous encounter, it is supposed to be unnerving, but on the Belvoir stage it looked ridiculous. Strangely Jacobs has stated that she was attempting to make this scene ridiculous … well she did it. One does wonder if ridiculous was really the right choice though. Bergman made this surreal sequence unnerving without so much as a tit or a testy, let alone a whole sex scene. What Jacobs achieved by changing the tone of the scene is really a matter for individual interpretation, but it seems to sit at odds with the text.
Unfortunately, adaptation and directional choices were not the only problems. As Alma, Karen Sibbing presented a puzzling performance. Simply put, Sibbing’s Alma was disturbingly caricatured. Initially, Sibbing seemed headed towards a rather fresh take, turning Alma into a pathetic and overwhelmingly tragic figure. This Alma was easy to mock, especially during her long, often awkward confessions. This part of the rendition was nicely different to the films’ and could have been carried if executed correctly. The performance however, quickly descended into chaos. Take for example Sibbing’s entrance after reading Elisabeth’s letter – one was reminded of a Daffy Duck sequence: having just pulled himself from a pond, he huffs and squelches away, fuming … from memory, there is no Auguste clown in Persona. None of this was helped by her increasingly noticeable falling inflections, which produced no emotional rhythm for the audience to connect with. Furthermore, it was as if she had suddenly become a mad woman, without performing the crucial task of blending her personality (as the script calls for) with Elisabeth. Sibbing is certainly not a terrible actress, but ultimately this performance, and perhaps her characterisation, needs a serious rethink.
Meredith Penman played Elisabeth, the silent actress and Alma’s ward. Penman’s portrayal of Elisabeth was reminiscent of Liv Ullmann’s in Bergman’s film. Whilst this choice was probably a good idea, all things considering, it means Penman will (inevitably) be compared to Ullmann. Unfortunately, Penman became a bit of a wallflower in this production. The beauty of Ullmann’s performance, all fourteen words and everything in between, is that it’s just so well observed. Ullmann worked just as hard as Bibi Andersson (Alma), and produced a strong, feminine and highly nuanced performance. Whilst Penman did a perfectly adequate job, she seemed to lack the spark, and further appeared to be riding the scene’s wave which meant she couldn’t be spectacular in her own right. However, it must be remembered that Penman did not have the luxury of close ups or multiple takes to get this silent role right.
Special mention must be made of Daniel Schlusser as Mr Vogler (Elisabeth’s husband) who had little to work with – both line-wise and clothing-wise – and who was required to perform the primary sexual act with Sibbing. Well done for getting your gear out and doing it with integrity.
Whilst theatre is (sadly) ephemeral, in this case it’s a good thing. The film should have been left alone, as the stage isn’t equipped for a proper adaptation. This coupled with strange directorial choices and odd acting choices will leave fans of the film disappointed and those unfamiliar with it confused. If your curiosity gets the better of you and you’d like to see for yourself Persona is playing until the 18th of August: http://belvoir.com.au/productions/persona/
It should be mentioned however that during this performance one audience member suffered from a medical emergency and the show was halted while the immortal words ‘is there a doctor in the house?’ were called out. To the actors credit they took the interruption in their stride and continued on seamlessly once the performance was resumed.