Ingmar Bergman’s enigmatic 1966 film, about a young nurse and her actress patient, may be a masterpiece of European cinema, but it doesn’t present a straightforward prospect for stage adaptation.
For starters, Bergman’s film plays with the medium of film itself; to some extent it is a self-reflexive examination of the art form. Transposed to the stage this crucial element is lost, though director Paul Schoolman does incorporate a large screen that projects key images from the film, as well as location backdrops.
Bergman’s script has largely been preserved, besides a brief opening monologue (delivered by Schoolman) describing the context of the film’s creation: Bergman was recovering from pneumonia, and much of it was written from his hospital bed. Schoolman also acts as narrator, using words extracted from Bergman’s own notes, though this has the unfortunate effect of further confusing an already complex narrative.
The casting is starkly different to the original; former Olivier winner Alice Krige plays the nurse to a younger patient, played by Nobuhle Mngcwengi, who has been struck into silence by an unknown malaise. Together they head to a remote beachside retreat to recuperate; though who is treating whom?
There are some moving exchanges, and Krige and Mngcwengi give it plenty of muscle as they confront their entangled demons, but there are too many bewildering longueurs in between.
The soundscape is provided by William Close’s extraordinary Earth Harp, a vast instrument that extends over the heads of the audience and produces an ethereal sound that sits somewhere between a synth and a pipe organ. It’s mesmerising, and I dare say the major reason to see this production. That and the opportunity to check out the superb new Riverside Studios, which makes a welcome return to the London theatre scene after an absence of five years.