Reviewed – 28th January 2020
“the best way to enjoy “Persona” is not to attempt to analyse, but just tuck into the multi-sensory and multi-dimensional feast”
A lot has changed at Riverside Studios in the past five years. Having closed its doors back in 2014 to undergo a huge renovation project, the venue now shines like a jewel on the banks of the Thames by Hammersmith Bridge, where once it felt almost lost down a back alley – almost secretive. It was always a bit ramshackle; but comfortable and with a wonderful atmosphere. A couple of years overdue, the transformed, state-of-the-art studio has lost none of the atmosphere while acquiring a sheen that brings it firmly into the digital age.
Always at the forefront of innovation, and famous for launching “Dr Who” into the world as the Daleks were filmed emerging from beneath Hammersmith Bridge, it quickly established itself as a full-blown arts centre showcasing film, television, music, theatre and visual art. A fitting choice, then, for the inaugural production, is “Persona” which blends film, music and theatre into one short burst of intriguing drama. Adapted by Paul Schoolman from Ingmar Bergman’s movie of the sixties, the story centres on a nurse and her patient: a successful actress who has suddenly stopped speaking.
Schoolman places himself into the piece as narrator and, by doing so, places Bergman there too; presenting the thoughts of the Swedish filmmaker, drawn from unpublished notes written in retrospect. In a slightly bewildering theatrical device Schoolman veers between informing the audience and then inhabiting the skins of characters within the piece. At times we are unsure whether we are in the original film, in the play, in the mind of Bergman or in the minds of the characters that inhabit Bergman’s imagination. But at least it keeps us on our toes and stops our own minds from wandering.
We are introduced to Alma, a nurse, played by Olivier Award winner Alice Krige, who is appointed to take care of well-known actress Elisabet Vogler (Nobuhle Mngcwengi) who has fallen silent. Has she lost the ability to speak, or merely the will? The two women move to a cottage by the sea when Alma decides the peace and isolation will be therapeutic for Elizabet. The deeper Elizabet descends into her silent world, the more Alma opens up. Freely knocking back the wine, Alma loosens words that used to be trapped inside her and soon she can’t stop them spilling out. Nobody has really listened to her before. Krige gently possesses the stage, but sometimes too quietly – her words often falling short of the rows part of the way up the auditorium. But it is an expertly controlled performance that rightly knocks the grandiose aspirations of the writing off its pedestal, giving a human touch to what could otherwise be seen as pretentiousness. Mngcwengi reacts silently, but seems to be the one in control, almost as though she is playing a game with her companion.
The two characters consume one another until it is difficult for them to distinguish each other. But the various themes explored in this piece threaten to consume each other too as they start dissolving into a soup of uncertainty. Bergman, and later Schoolman, are guilty of over seasoning as they investigate identity, sifting through aspects of the human condition such as truth, lies, parenthood, abortion, lesbian attraction, schizophrenia and consciousness. Bergman himself was always coy in his refusal to reveal what the story meant. He wanted the audience to draw its own conclusions. He hoped it would be felt rather than understood.
In the hands of these three actors, particularly Krige, it is certainly a show that speaks to the senses. And a fourth character, in the shape of William Close and his Earth Harp, certainly makes sure of that. Close, dynamically positioned at the harp’s resonating chamber, underscores with his semi-improvised compositions as the haunting melodies travel along the strings that stretch throughout the auditorium above our heads.
‘Persona’ originates from the Roman word that referred to a theatrical mask. The temptation is to try to see behind the mask, though the best way to enjoy “Persona” is not to attempt to analyse, but just tuck into the multi-sensory and multi-dimensional feast.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
Riverside Studios until 23rd February
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