'After the Rehearsal'/'Persona': Theater Review

Jan Versweyveld
From left: Marieke Heebink, Gijs Scholten van Aschat and Gaite Jansen in ‘Persona’
A two-for-one triumph.

Tony-winning Belgian director Ivo van Hove's Ingmar Bergman double bill lands at London's Barbican.

Ingmar Bergman had a thing about Vogler. The name regularly comes up in his films, not as a recurring character, but as a number of seemingly disparate souls who can nevertheless be conjoined by common themes, not least the blurred line between art and reality. With his company Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Belgian director Ivo van Hove has conceived a double bill that powerfully unites two such pieces: Persona, Bergman’s extraordinary, experimental, black-and-white masterwork from 1966; and After the Rehearsal, a bristling, brilliant chamber piece made for television in 1984.

At first glance an unlikely match, onstage at the Barbican the pair bounce off each other marvelously. And with the same performers appearing in both plays, the result is a fascinating, intense, at times beautifully staged evening about the sacrifices, indulgences and psychological disturbances of the theatrical life.

Van Hove himself has a thing about Bergman: he has staged Cries and Whispers and Scenes From a Marriage, and this double bill premiered in 2012. One can see why: The Belgian’s own approach to drama — spare, psychological, occasionally brutal — has much in common with the Swede’s. Performed in Dutch, with surtitles, these adaptations by Peter van Kraaij appear faithful to the screenplays; one of the pleasures of the evening is that van Kraaij has recognized what too few do about Bergman, that he had a sense of humor.

The production opens with the later work. Theater director Hendrik Vogler (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) is lounging alone at the end of a day of rehearsal, for his production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play, when his young star Anna (Gaite Jansen) disturbs him, spuriously searching for a bracelet. The two engage in conversation that moves seamlessly between their working collaboration, mutual attraction, secrets, lies and the shadow hovering over them of Vogler’s former affair with Anna’s mother, Rachel, also an actress.

For Vogler, "acting is life," his understanding and coaxing of actors his chief satisfaction, the theatrical props "my friends." When Anna declares that she's pregnant (which may or may not be true) the sudden threat to Vogler's production sends him into a rage (Bergman infamously railed against what he perceived as the inconvenience of children). But Anna’s thespian need for reassurance is meat and drink to the director, flirtation for a part of the creative urge, and their dance around each other is relatively well behaved.

At one point, Anna recalls how her parents, both actors, would conduct their domestic rows "in character," her mother crying with her right eye, while watching her performance with her left. Unsurprisingly, then, when Rachel (Marieke Heebink) surges through the door — mother replacing daughter in what could be entirely the director's reverie — the dance becomes a brawl.

As with Ingrid Thulin in the film, Heebink chews up the scenery in terrific fashion, as her drunk, bitter, wretched old diva alternates between furiously berating Vogler for offering her a two-line role and begging for a return to their glory days. She's not averse to beating him up.

Vogler asserts that, "I want peace, order, so I can manage the mechanics of recreation." But the fact that discord in his life fuels his creativity is reiterated when Anna returns to the scene and the pair conjure a piquant fast-forward through an imagined affair that is destined to fail.

An actress's life seems even more fragile in Persona, where Elisabeth Vogler (Heebink) stops talking in the middle of a performance of Electra and thereafter remains mute. In the hospital, a doctor (Lineke Rijxman) asserts there is nothing physically or mentally wrong with her. She assigns a nurse, Alma (Jansen), to accompany Vogler to an isolated house on an island, where she may coax the actress back to life.

The doctor's fanciful diagnosis is that the actress has tired of the "lies" of her profession, the many false voices that she had to adopt in character; of course, she could now be acting out another role. The impact of the star on the vulnerable, impressionable young nurse is profound, though the two soon become matched in the art of messing with each other's heads.

While designer Jan Versweyveld's staging of After the Rehearsal is low-key (a sparsely furnished room, more office than rehearsal space; ironically there's more sense of the theater in the movie), his work for Persona is astonishing. At first, nothing: a room with a hospital bed, on which lies Elisabeth Vogler's naked figure. But the move to the island is signaled by a theatrical flourish, the walls of the space falling away to reveal a wooden platform surrounded by water and light, liquid ripples reflected in the screen behind. With the two women constantly in and out of the water — and at one point dancing naked as wind machines whip the pool into a storm around them — the setting has a primal quality perfect for the psychic battle to come.

If Heebink takes the first piece by the scruff of the neck, this time it’s Jansen's turn, and not just because Alma does almost all of the talking; character and actress alike have to effectively map out the whole relationship, every theme and nuance, and Jansen's performance builds the emotional intensity superbly.

The area of the evening where it chiefly loses in translation from film is in the character of Elisabeth Vogler; on screen, Liv Ullmann had Bergman's signature close-ups in which to bring her to life; without them, Heebink struggles to find her character's ambiguity or match her partner's presence. Likewise, van Hove doesn't seem quite so interested in matching the Bergman framing that conjured that creepy merging of the two personalities.

It's also ironic that a stage production can be subject to a criticism more usually leveled at film, that of too much music. A selection that includes "Moon River," numerous Scott Walker tracks and Kenny Rogers & The First Edition's "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" often feels obtrusive, breaking the spell created by the actors.

Nevertheless, van Hove makes remarkably lucid the rich correspondences between these two pieces. While Anna may have had an abortion to preserve her rising career, Elisabeth thought of taking the same course, failed, and hates her son. Anna and Rachel fight for territory in Henrik's affections, while Alma apparently has sex with Elisabeth's husband. The identities of mother and daughter, patient and nurse become confused by the men in their lives; acting and life become bonded to the point whereby the pursuit of one destroys the other.

Anyone familiar with Bergman's biography will see his personality all over his characters' interactions, those of After the Rehearsal in particular. And they will recognize the painful self-criticism that informs the double bill's closing lines, spoken by the doctor: "In my experience, you must be quite infantile to be an artist."

Following the acclaimed Roman Tragedies and the lukewarmly received Obsession, this production concludes Toneelgroep Amsterdam's residency at the Barbican on a high.

Venue: The Barbican, London
Cast: Marieke Heebink, Gaite Jansen, Gijs Scholten van Aschat, Lineke Rijxman
Director: Ivo van Hove
Playwright: Ingmar Bergman
Dramaturg: Peter van Kraaij
Set & lighting designer: Jan Versweyveld
Costume designer: An D'Huys
Sound designer: Roeland Fernhout
Presented by The Barbican