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Riverside Studios reopens with this bewildering Ingmar Bergman adaptation, featuring something called an earth harp
Wine, book, paper bag, nail varnish, thermos, cups, sheets, mushrooms, pebbles, orange juice… there sure is a lot of stuff on stage at the opening of ‘Persona’, and you notice it because the rest of the stage design is sleek, cool and metallic. The household detritus stands out the way it would if you emptied the cupboard under the stairs and dumped its contents in the middle of a modernist office boardroom.
This adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s film, directed by Paul Schoolman, is unafraid of add-ons in other ways. An extra character, known as The Narrator, provides a sort of meta-commentary for the story itself, using extracts from Bergman’s own writings. There’s also a live soundtrack performed on something called an earth harp. Officially the world’s largest playable stringed instrument, this beast has one end of its strings attached to the back auditorium wall and the other to a great wooden curve embossed with the words ‘EARTH HARP’.
The fundamentals of the story, however, are basically the same. Elisabet Vogler (Nobuhle Mngcwengi, who brings by far the most nuance to the entire show, simply through facial expression) is a famous actress who becomes a selective mute and is admitted to hospital. A strange co-dependent relationship develops between Elisabet and her nurse, Alma (Alice Krige), who is obsessed with the actress.
But the psychological intricacies that make the original film so fascinating are absent here. The interjection of Bergman’s words brings little insight and the piece builds to a scrambled, hurried conclusion.
Despite transparent attempts to make this a meaningful piece of theatre – with the earth harp irritatingly twanging loudly to flag up each potentially dramatic pause in speech, and long ponderous projections of ebbing and flowing waves – there’s little genuine emotional heft. Instead, there’s just a great assortment of half-finished ideas scattered around, like all those props.