Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is a film that plays like an experiment and an exploration. It’s the film where, arguably, Bergman discovered something about “film” that he didn’t already know. You watch it with a sense of almost occult mystery as you realize that there is more to film, to putting on celluloid images of enacted stories, than you had suspected. It’s a film that makes you think about why you are willing to spend so much time watching, and what it is you are looking at and for when you “watch.” Staged by the Yale Cabaret, directed by Alexandru Mihail, Persona becomes satisfying theater more easily than one might have expected. Of course, the Cab has long shown itself to be uniquely advantageous for staging works that seem to be taking place not in any specific “where” but rather in some space not unlike our own psyches, that space where dreams take place. It’s not that the characters—Elizabeth Vogler (Monique Bernadette Barbee), the actress who has inexplicably become mute; The Doctor (Emily Reilly) who is treating her, and Sister Alma (Laura Gragtmans), the nurse assigned to Elizabeth—aren’t “real,” they each are delineated with a clarity that gives them weight and scope. The projections of Elizabeth’s husband (Lucas Dixon) making breakfast, for instance, or Alma singing along to a Beatles’ song while going about her chores, or the Doctor’s somewhat arch tone, one professional to another, in speaking to Elizabeth—we glimpse in such moments the people beyond the drama we’re watching, people who might inhabit ordinary lives elsewhere.
But in the drama we’re watching, these characters are figures for a very real tension that lies beneath the busy surface of the world we use to hide from ourselves. Alma speaks of it as “the Pain Nerve”—a sense, which Elizabeth may have stumbled upon in her attempts to enact tragedy night after night on stage, that what really hurts us is knowing that we must try to be ourselves and will ultimately fail. In other words, what Elizabeth’s condition makes clear is that life is a battle of wills, first with oneself, and then with those who we try to please or defeat or love or make love us. The problem, as Alma insists, berating Elizabeth late in the play, is that we become so easily bored with the roles life assigns us, become redundant in our jobs and marriages and families and careers. We might wish to fall silent, as Elizabeth does, or launch upon some version of “the talking cure,” as Alma does.
We could easily see Elizabeth as a prima donna grown tired of the adoration of audiences, now wanting to “star” as an invalid, a special case, in her own life. And it seems that The Doctor has some such view of her, though without any moral condemnation of such willful vanity. Sister Alma, on the other hand, finds in Elizabeth’s silence an unparalleled goad to find her own voice, to release and enact her own personality, to, as it were, “play” herself with a theatricality, an exhibitionism, that surprises her.
Two highly sexual moments enact for us the limits of theatricality as truth. One is a vivid story Alma tells involving public nudity on a beach and instinctive, anonymous, and fulfilling sex. Gragtmans’ voice, as Alma finds veritas in vino, is a striptease, flirting with her silent auditor, inviting her into the intimate space of a shared secret, but at the same time (in Bergman’s script these are Swedes in the Sixties, after all) her story offers a hope of getting “beyond” hang-ups and bourgeois mores, a bit of “beach theater” that might be a bond between the women. In a letter Elizabeth writes to her husband, Alma reads her story held up in a rather different light from what she felt she communicated, and her own naïveté appalls her. Elizabeth’s written voice takes away the thrill of collusion that all shared secrets depend upon.
The second sexual moment takes place between Alma and Mr. Vogler and plays, with Dixon rather comically distraught, as a testing of the kind of baring of the self that Alma has been enacting. As Elizabeth looks on, we might find in the scene, from her point of view, a demonstration that being someone’s object of desire can be a means to find or lose oneself, and that either might be fulfilling or terrifying. “If there is a bond uniting us—call it womanhood or femininity or humanness or what-have-you”—Elizabeth might be saying, “you have to see it as such before we can be said to share it.” Ultimately, Alma balks at seeing what Elizabeth sees and what, as actress, as face, voice, movement, gesture, Elizabeth shows.
The production has many fine effects involving sound, projections, and effective staging with, at first, an inner room behind gauze, and, later, a mundane beach home of cozy chairs and coffee urns. As a play at the Cab, Persona achieves an intimacy that a movie can’t quite realize, for we are all located in the space where Gragtmans’ outpourings speak into our silence the same as Barbee’s, so that we are more directly entangled in the process of identifying with speaker or listener, with Alma’s voluble or Elizabeth’s detached persona. Persona is a thrilling reminder of the costs of our social selves and a memorable example of the power of theater.
Persona Based on a film by Ingmar Bergman Directed by Alexandru Mihail
The Yale Cabaret October 6-8, 2011