Barbican Theatre, London (***)
Having excavated Visconti (Ossessione), Ivo van Hove has now moved on to Ingmar Bergman. Much as I admire van Hove – and I do – I am a little perplexed as to why he’s involved himself quite so much in transferring the inscrutable into the literal.
Theatre is ephemeral, we know. But when it comes to creating images containing multi-layered implications and ideas, film and Ingmar Bergman’s films are surely almost impossible to replicate.
Perhaps that is why van Hove set himself the task to translate two – After the Rehearsal (1984) originally made for television and Persona (1966 and considered Bergman’s `masterpiece’) – to the stage: for the challenge of it.
That he comes anywhere near to emulating the enigma and the genius that was Bergman must be put down to the scale of his own vision and the quality of the actors he attracts.
The Toneelgroep are a simply magnificent group as productions such as Roman Tragedies and the recent Obsession has shown (at the Barbican in the Spring with the additions of Jude Law and Chukwudi Iwuji).
Van Hove’s way is to strip back to bare essentials and to release the kind of uninhibited, naked acting only rarely seen in this country. Billie Piper’s recent Yerma is perhaps the nearest that any female actor has come to matching the sheer volume of intensity and unselfconsciousness van Hove seems able to draw from his actresses.
Indeed, the extent of their emotional nakedness and self revelation I find is sometimes more than a little worrying – nowhere more so, again, than here, in the second part of the double-bill, Persona in which identity, convergence and psychosis are mixed into a desperate strand on a theme of the roles we play in life and motherhood.
Van Hove has his catatonic, former actress, Elisabeth Volger – the amazing Marieke Heebink – stripped down to physical nakedness in the opening scene in which we see her in a hospital looked after by a young nurse, Alma (the equally dedicated, but more fragile Gaite Jansen).
Elisabeth has decided to withhold speech. Alma has been consigned to her to encourage her back to health. They are sent to a remote island where gradually the tables begin to be turned.
Elisabeth remains silent and Alma begins to unburden herself with tales of a beach orgy, the child that was aborted when she became pregnant as a result of it and her suppressed grief.
At this point, the stage is now surrounded by water. Elisabeth and Alma withstand a storm, a drenching (vast turbine wind machines stand at one side of the Barbican stage wafting out wind and water spray) and later are forced to crawl through it, Alma in a style reminiscent of our amphibian ancestors.
Perhaps on film, these moments of quite shocking emotional and physical extremes would have dovetailed in with the subtlety a camera shot can capture of faces placed side by side, ecstatic bodies understandably feeling liberated by the beauty of rain on naked flesh.
Somehow in a theatre, no matter how cleverly conceived, that elusive quality is simply stamped out.
Rather more successful in its theatrical transplant is After the Rehearsal – a more than slightly incestuous exploration of the essence of theatre, directors, performers and their relationship to audiences.
Anyone interested in the art form will find this a fascinating examination of three personalities as Gijs Scholten van Aschat’s Hendrik Vogler, a director of artistic discipline but messy personal life allows himself to be both seducer and seduced by Gaite Jansen’s beautiful Anna – a young actress he’s cast in the lead role of Strindberg’s A Dream Play.
Bergman was hugely influenced by Strindberg in his artistic life. The points at which van Hove’s director converges with Strindberg are not immediately apparent here. What is instead explored with extraordinary passion, violence and again uninhibited emotion are the boundaries between truth and reality.
Pirandello too was obsessed by role playing. Hendrik’s former lover, Rachel (now dead) and the mother of Anna reappears (Marieke Heebink again bursting onto the stage, floundering in alcoholic and psychological collapse). After her departure, the older man and the young actress re-enact what their life might be like were they to have an affair.
I fancy that on film, again, the battle between an all-controlling, ageing director being forced into response by the ambition of a young actor may have been marked by greater subtlety. Here, it is sacrificed more on the altar of whirlwind action.
But that’s the van Hove way. And insofar as his performers are concerned – well, they are just astounding.
Marieke Heebink’s duet of roles takes her from artistic desperation (in After the Rehearsal) to mesmerising stillness in Persona. The fact that Gaite Jansen, impressively contrasting equally as Anna and Alma respectively, is so much younger than Heebink, adds a further mother-daughter dimension to their already multi-faceted exchanges.
All in all, then, a mixed bag of brilliance. No question about the execution either in terms of stagecraft or performances.
But perhaps both just make one long even more to see the original films – and the inscrutable, mysterious luminosity of Bergman’s `muses’ – Liv Ullmann and Bibi Anderssson in Persona and Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin and Lena Olin in After the Rehearsal.
After the Rehearsal/Persona
Based on the films by Ingmar Bergman
After the Rehearsal
Rachel: Marieke Heebink
Hendrik Vogler: Gijs Scholten van Aschat
Anna: Gaite Jansen
Elisabeth Vogler: Marieke Heebink
Doctor: Lineke Rijxman
Elisabeth’s husband: Gijs Scholten van Aschat
Alma: Gaite Jansen
Director: Ivo van Hove
Dramaturg: Peter van Kraaij
Translation (After the Rehearsal): Karst Woudstra
Translation (Persona): Peter van Kraaij
Set Design and lighting: Jan Versweyveld
Sound design: Roeland fernhout
Costume design: An D’Huys
Presented by the Barbican
Co-produced by Théâtre de la Place (Liége), Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg and Maison des arts de Créteil
Realised in collaboration with Auteursbureau ALMO bvba commissioned by Josef Weinberger Ltd, London and the Ingmar Bergman Foundation.
Performances in the Barbican Theatre, Sept 27-30 2017
Review published on this site, Sept 28, 2017