Ghosts, dreams, memories and the masks we wear to present our various selves every day: there are more characters drifting through this pair of screenplays by Ingmar Bergman than there are actors on stage in the Belgian auteur Ivo van Hove’s elegantly mesmeric theatrical adaptation.
Van Hove’s relationship with the great Swedish filmmaker dates back to his earlier versions of Cries and Whispers and Scenes From a Marriage. Now he turns a cool hand to two works that consider the life of the artist, the art of living and the struggle to achieve authenticity in either.
Layers of illusion overlap and collide, and there is a wit as well as a limpid elegance to his diptych, performed in Dutch with English surtitles. It also encourages a sense of appraising detachment, its intellectual provocation rarely warmed by emotional engagement.
The 1984 TV film, After the Rehearsal, charts a backstage encounter between a seasoned director, Hendrik Vogler (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) and a young actor, Anna (gamine Gaite Jansen), who is starring in his production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play.
Their conversation, ostensibly professional, is loaded with sexual tension; and they are interrupted by Vogler’s reverie about Anna’s dead mother, Rachel (a raddled, rasping Marieke Heebink), once a successful actor herself with whom Vogler had an affair, before she declined into despair and drink.
Youth and desirability are onerous aspects of the roles the women must play, on stage and off, if they are not to become invisible; and there’s a deliberately troubling note to the gender dynamic of controlling male creative and females straining to please.
Van Hove’s regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld amps up the artificiality of the first play with a design that evokes a film set, the action hemmed in by false walls, lamps and a camera. For Persona (1966), the visuals are ravishing. Elisabeth (Heebink), a star of stage and screen, has been stricken speechless midway through a performance.
At hospital, she is tended by a sympathetic psychiatrist and an admiring nurse, Alma (Jansen), who takes her for a rest cure to a coastal summer house. There, a fierce intimacy develops between them. Alma fills Elisabeth’s silence with bruising confessions, and their identities gradually coalesce.
The staging has a graceful symmetry, as Heebink and Jansen, identically dressed in pale slips, wade across a white stage flooded with gleaming water, or are exuberantly drenched by a glittering summer storm whipped up by sprinklers and huge fans. It’s beautiful – and blatantly, knowingly false.
And that encapsulates both the success of these plays, and their inevitable limitation: they suggest an existential anguish in the tension between semblance and reality. But they only ever permit us to examine it with a clinical eye, and at arm’s length.