Riverside Studios, London ****
Runs: 90 mins no interval.
Box office: 020 8237 1010

Review of perf seen Jan 30, 2020:

© Pamela Raith, Alice Krige as Alma, Nobuhle Mngcwengi as Elizabet – the tables are turned from carer to be cared for…

There’s a sense of déjà vu about Persona launching a new era at Riverside Studios.

Six years after it closed for refurbishment, here is Riverside – once the home of an eclectic range of home grown and touring work, and run for a number of years with great elan by Peter Gill – back in business.Sitting inside a smart new riverside rotunda, boasting restaurant – `Sam’s` – a theatre bar, over a block of new apartments – no doubt helping to offset some of the costs of running an arts venue in this day and age – Riverside will also house a state-of-the-art tv studio and cinema which, as it happens, whilst this new adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece is playing in the theatre, is screening two of his films.

So far, so good. And, I have to say, I came away eager for more.

William Burdett Coutts, the Riverside’s artistic director and master-mind behind this transformation – as he has also been for many years with Edinburgh’s Assembly Theatre during the festival – seems to me to be setting a distinctly European tone to his first season, so welcome in these insular, mean-spirited times.

Re-staging – Paul Schoolman’s is a new adaptation – of what is commonly hailed on film anyway as Bergman’s `masterpiece’ is certainly sending a very particular message about intention.

© Pamela Raith, Alice Krige as Alma the nurse, and Nobuhle Mngcwengi as Elizabet the actress with a thousand different ways of showing passive resistance…

And if some have found it a weird idiosyncratic choice, we might also consider how the recent darling of the international and London theatre circuit, Ivo Van Hove, has seemed to find equal inspiration from adapting films to the theatre, with Visconti and latterly Bergman himself with the double-bill he brought to the Barbican only a couple of years ago.

Bergman has said of Persona that the making of it probably saved his life. The subject, feeding off his own life, is very much a work of the director’s imagination about creativity, the people involved in it, and the gap between the unreality of theatre and the illusion of life.

In the case of Persona, a male director stands at the hub of this vortex orchestrating a story of psychological transference in the story of a famous actress, Elizabet turned mute, and the female nurse, Alma, who is assigned to care for her.

In Van Hove’s production, starring two of the many remarkable actors from his Toneelgroep, Marieke Heebink and Gaite Jansen, much was made of trying to re-create the physical and elemental quality of Bergman’s cinematic style with giant wind machines, water and stripping down to the skin – a technique that came close to feeling exploitative, as indeed one might say of Bergman’s treatment of women in his work, looked at these days through a rather different contemporary light.

To his credit, for my money, Schoolman, who adapted, directed and plays the Bergman `character’, makes this archetypal controller rather more evident in his production. There is no stripping down to the skin or wind machines though like Van Hove, an extensive use of back projected sea scapes – necessarily since over half the scenario takes place in an isolated cottage by the sea.

Schoolman’s background in theatre and beyond covers an extraordinary span, from training with the mime school, Ecole Jacques le Coq in Paris, to Hollywood as an apprentice film-maker, to recent work in prisons.

© Pamela Raith, William Close with his newly invented instrument, Earth Harp, reaching out into the darkness…

But instead of wind machines, Schoolman’s production features the first sight of a new instrument called the Earth Harp – a gigantic kidney-shaped stringed edifice with strings reaching out like tentacles far into the audience.

Behind it stands a lithe, black jeaned figure, William Close whose invention it is. And whose heel-sprung athleticism plucking at the strings produces a sound both throbbing and ethereal, electronic and primal throughout the performance.

Bergman’s Persona however must stand and fall by its two women protagonists, Elizabet and Alma – a weird, strange relationship that perhaps could only have been conceived from a male mind.

As Alma, the quiet nurse who, transported to coastal isolation begins to unburden herself of a lifetime’s guilt relating to an abortion and prior to that, a summer’s sexual release on a beach, Alice Krige at first benign gradually takes on the `persona’ of a ravaged soul ultimately betrayed by her unexpected, unguarded confessionals.

© Pamela Raith, Nobuhle Mngcwengi as Elizabet and Alice Krige as the nurse Alma, realising she has been betrayed by her own kindness to Elizabet, who is mocking her in her silence…

Krige has not been seen on our stage for some years. But to watch her transformation, the careful study of every wince and twitch of the shoulders was, for me, to feel a very special presence at work.

Elizabet’s muteness is far harder to convey. Schoolman has chosen a South African actress with whom he has worked befoe, Nobuhle Mngcwengi. Her far more difficult job is to convey resistance and disgust through silence.

Mngcwengi achieves this casting a remarkable spell of solidity turning to maternal reassurance and back again to hostility.

In the end, there are strange alchemies at work. But personally, I loved precisely its sense of oddness, it’s sense of non-Englishness, Krige’s subtlety and wonder, Mngcwengi’s unspoken defiance and calmness. It seemed to me a more honest account than Van Hove’s. But like Van Hove’s, it sent me out wishing even more to go back and see the film!

Adapted by Paul Schoolman from the Ingmar Bergman film
Translated by Emilia Bostedt, Maja Dobling, and Alice Krige

Alma: Alice Krige
Elizabet: Nobuhle Mngcwengi
Earth Harp: William Close (Jan 21-30), Catrin Meek (Jan 31-Feb 23)
Narrator: Paul Schoolman

Director: Paul Schoolman
Set and Costume Design: Fotini Dimou
Lighting Design: Jack Weir
Projection Design: P J McEvoy
Videographer: Filip Haglunc

Presented by Persona On Stage by arrangement with Josef Weinberger Plays Limited London on behalf of The Ingmar Bergman Foundation.

First perf of this production at Riverside Studios, London, Jan 21, 2020. Runs to Feb 23, 2020
Review published on this site, Feb 2, 2020