About a year and a half ago I saw a play called Na de Repetitie / Persona (After the Rehearsal / Persona), a two parter based on Bergman‘s films. They worked extremely well together, both questioning the relevance of art in everyday life. This wasn’t the first time I saw a theatre adaptation of one of Bergman‘s films. Scènes uit een huwelijk (Scènes from a marriage) is probably the best play I’ve ever seen. Both are directed by Ivo Van Hove (Toneelgroep Amsterdam), who recently won the Olivier Award for directing A view from the bridge at the Young Vic.
Although I’ve never seen Persona before, and this is only the second Bergman film I’ve watched, thanks to the play, I was familiar with the story of Alma and Elizabeth. I was not however, expecting that intro. The opening montage flashes a series of disturbing images on the screen. It’s a preview of what’s to come. The film might center around an actress, it won’t be about the glitz and the glamour. We’ll delve into the ugly interior life of these two characters.
It also serves another purpose: it reminds us we’re watching a film. This motif will return later in the film. During one scene we briefly get a glimpse of the film crew, while another scene is shown twice, through two different camera angles. Art and life are never too far apart. Perhaps there is no difference.
Bergman puts two women front and center. Apparently a Swedish film director, born a hundred years ago, understood something that Hollywood in the 21st century, still hasn’t quite figured out: women can be pretty interesting, even on film.
Persona has been called a masterpiece, and Bergman‘s finest work. It may be the latter, but it most certainly is the first. Glued to the screen, it’s impossible to reject the notion that you’re watching something special. A weird experiment that, not only would have failed in the hands of any other director, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Bergman.
But at the core of this visual feat, two performances sell the story. Mr. Vogler and the Doctor really only exist to push these two characters – Alma and Elisabeth, life and art – further together. Alma (Bibi Andersson) carries the narrative. For the most part, she’s the only source of sound, of words, of stories. As Alma gets further and further intertwined with Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann), the latter’s silence grows louder and louder. Ullmann doesn’t say a word, but the character of Elisabeth doesn’t suffer for it one bit.
Persona does exactly what it tells us it’s doing. It elevates art by turning it into something that explores our own nature. The human condition, if you will. Does this still hold up in today’s, more cynical world?
Probably more than ever.