Jack Cardiff, who died in 2009 at 94, was one of the great cinematographers of the twentieth century, working with the likes of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger behind the camera and Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich in front of it. He was famously close to several actresses and his relationships with them occasionally blurred the personal and professional. But if that sounds racy, playwright Terry Johnson (‘Hitchcock Blonde’, ‘Dead Funny’) only tiptoes around the edges of the bedroom for his first full-length play in more than a decade. Instead, ‘Prism’ poetically and wistfully frames Cardiff in the softer, hazier light of his declining years and only fitfully takes us back to his glory days via anecdotes and the reveries of dementia.
Johnson imagines Cardiff – played with urbane tenderness by Robert Lindsay – in decline, living at home in Buckinghamshire in close contact with a carer, Lucy (Rebecca Night), his son, Mason (Barnaby Kay), and his wife, Nicola (Claire Skinner), all of whom are increasingly worried by his forgetfulness and strange behaviour as he tries to finish his memoirs. The ‘prism’ of the title is the magical block of glass that makes sense of light inside a movie camera, splitting the world before it into the three colours that make their mark on celluloid. Johnson runs with this idea, allowing his story to fragment in similar ways. At one point, we’re back in Africa on the set of ‘The African Queen’, with Kay as Humphrey Bogart and Skinner as Hepburn. Later, Night is Marilyn Monroe visiting Cardiff for a screen test, while Kay plays her jealous husband Arthur Miller.
‘Prism’ offers some striking vignettes and nicely reflective moments. An opening scene in which Cardiff runs through the various movie-making aspect ratios using his slowly rising garage door as evidence is inspired; and Cardiff’s final monologue offers a moving reflection on art and mortality. But you imagine that some of the great storytellers with whom Cardiff worked might raise an eyebrow at how Johnson’s play meanders and even apologises for its lack of structure and authority. Also, if you come to ‘Prism’ not knowing who Cardiff is, Johnson does little to help. The play works less as an introduction to the man and more as a series of in-jokes and footnotes for the initiated.