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Persona (Susan Elkin reviews)

Adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s iconic film by Paul Schoolman. Presented by Persona Onstage by arrangement with Josef Weinberger Plays Limited, London on behalf of The Ingmar Bergman Foundation.
performance date: 29 Jan 2020
venue: Riverside Studios, 101 Queen Caroline Street, Hammersmith, London W6 9

Photos: Pamela Raith


It’s an intriguing and challenging piece, the real star of which is the earth harp, played by its inventor, William Close. Vibrating, pitched wires are suspended right across the auditorium from their glitzy Wurlitzer like base stage at stage right. Close, who looks like a powerful Viking, stands legs akimbo wearing gloves which he has dusted with some kind of resin for cohesion. He then strokes, or plucks the wires to create ethereal, minor key melodic music. It’s very spectacular, highly atmospheric and well deserving of its longish solo spot at the start – a quasi overture to the play.

This is an adaptation – by Paul Schoolman who also directs, narrates and plays minor roles – of Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film. And we’re never allowed to forget that. Scenery – mostly a seascape in various moods – is projected, moving, onto the back wall which also displays photographs including a series of horrifying, familiar ones at the end. The earth harp meanwhile provides sound effects and filmic background music throughout. Sometimes Schoolman, as narrator, breaks in and comments on the making of the film.

In a play which explores who we are, who we think we are and how we consequently relate to each other, Elizabet (Nobuhle Mngcwengi) is a famous actress. Apparently happily married and mother of a six year old, she is in hospital suffering from paralysis and mutism. Because doctors can find nothing wrong with her, physically or mentally, she is sent to the seaside in the care of a nurse, Alma (Alice Krige) to recover. The relationship between the two women and their troubled back stories (no spoilers) drives the rest of the narrative.

Mngcwengi is silent for most of the ninety minutes but communicates powerfully with her face and head. She listens and responds to Alice effectively in what must be a pretty difficult role to carry off. Krige as Alice, on the other hand, has a massive speaking part. She is impassioned, angry, maudlin, unhappy, caring, conscientious and troubled – and convincing.

This is a play which requires a lot of concentration, asks more questions than it answers and isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea – the man next to me was very fidgety and kept sighing. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating idea and the quality of performance is high.


First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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