Persona at Riverside Studios
Paul Schoolman takes on the exciting and risky feat of bringing to the stage Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona, the enigmatic story of a nurse and her patient. Schoolman, who acts as narrator and fills secondary roles, opens the show by telling the audience about Bergman’s experience of writing this story, namely that he was in hospital suffering from pneumonia. While much of the script is unchanged, the director uses Bergman’s own annotations to tweak the plot. Unfortunately this adds neither clarity nor punch to the show.
Elizabet (Nobuhle Mngcwengi) is a successful actress suddenly struck by a mysterious psychological malaise that causes her to shut down and stop talking. She is assigned to the care of nurse Alma (Alice Krige), but after a period of showing no signs of improvement, her doctor suggests a seaside retreat. Accompanied by Alma, she seems to grow more peaceful amid the elements. The one-sided conversations oblige Alma to open up more and more, until she bares her soul to her passive listener. As their roles, and very identities, seem to melt and lose substance, the audience is left to wonder about their relationship and the notion of private self and public persona.
The hardest element to transpose to the stage is perhaps the mood that Bergman creates in the film. Schoolman’s production features images of the sea projected in the background to draw the audience into a mystical dimension, which works well. The strongest attempt to build suspense and a special ambience, however, is without a doubt the Earth Harp providing the soundscape. Developed and played by William Close, it is a large instrument placed in one corner of the stage, with its thick strings crossing the entire auditorium and hanging above the audience, surrounding them with eerie vibrations.
The story itself, and its peak moments, fail to land as they should. The play’s different elements seem disjointed and its buildup lacks intensity and pathos. The production is not without merits, but it places itself in a no-win situation: while it requires background knowledge of the film to fill in the gaps, holding Bergman’s work as reference exposes the stage production’s limitations. Persona remains, though, an interesting experiment and a reason to visit the newly refurbished Riverside Studios – a large, exciting and promising space.
Photo: Pamela Raith
Persona is at from 21st January until 23rd February 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.