Nightmares in white: Belvoir's Persona

Belvoir’s presentation of Adena Jacobs’ theatrical reimaging of Persona is a hard pill to swallow. First performed by Fraught Outfit in Melbourne in 2012 to strong critical reviews, it takes Bergman’s 1966 film of the same name, and uses Bergman’s dialogue but reconceives it for the stage. Similar to Simon Stone’s staging of Bergman’s Face to Face for Sydney Theatre Company last year, Persona seems to be more distant and removed than it needs to be, and seems to occur in some kind of unengaging vacuum rather than the “consummate theatrical close-up ” Belvoir advertises in their season brochure.

Set on what can be a hospital room, a house overlooking the sea, and any place inbetween, the set looks more like something you might find in IKEA – all pale wood, white window frames and walls, white curtains. The colour, when it appears, comes from Alma’s costumes and the stories she tells. And talk she does – she never stops; the production is, essentially, a seventy-five minute monologue for Alma.
Elizabeth is an actress who falls silent in the middle of a performance. However, no one can determine the cause of her affliction; perhaps it is a nervous breakdown, or merely an attention seeking act? Sent to the seaside to recover, her nurse, Alma, fills the silence and begins to discuss her own life, her fears, desires, needs. Some of the scenes are engaging, in that there is an urgent undertow to them, but the dramatic thread that pulls them together seems to flow and ebb much like the tides in the sound design’s ever-present ocean.
We are told Persona is about “our basic human need to be seen and known by another person.” But what about the basic human need to be respected and not thrown away like the peel of a piece of fruit (to paraphrase Arthur Miller)? The bleak and desperate sex scene towards the end only serves to heighten this discrepancy between what we are told and what we see. Instead of intimacy, we get an almost nihilistic view of Alma’s world, a window into the patheticness and emptiness which lurks in the corners of these characters’ lives. The resolution of this scene – in which Daniel Schlusser’s Mr Vogler sits on the deckchair in the middle of the stage wearing nothing but his silent wife’s sunhat – is perhaps the only comic moment in the play, even though it is shot through with the unavoidable and resounding implications of its very existence.
In many respects, the issue at the core of this play could be seen to be the mis/treatment of women, as much as it is about intimacy and knowing each other and our selves. But, as with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof earlier in the year, this undercurrent goes seemingly unaddressed and uncritiqued. I have no issue with making pieces of theatre that deal with the theme of sexual abuse, the inherent abuse and denigration of women in our society, the issues of sexual and domestic violence; in many ways, these are the current taboo topics which exist in our society, which everyone knows is there but they don’t want to talk about. Drawing them into the open through theatre is one way to examine them. But to present them to audiences and then not follow it up with a discussion or interrogation of them or their wider implications, then I have a problem with that. (While I’m not pointing the finger at anyone in particular, in this case I do think part of the problem comes from Bergman himself.) Without such an interrogation, audiences can grow passive and complacent to the repetition of such themes; they will soon lose their bite, their shock-value and their unacceptability, and will pass back into the cultural milieu, unnegotiated. The more works with these themes are presented to us without contention, the more it begins to look like the conscious presentation of a particular world view or agenda. And that is a very dangerous place to be. I am all in favour of theatre that challenges the status quo, that steps outside of the comfort zone and does something bold, audacious and inyourface; theatre and its audiences need to challenge each other, just as men and women do within society, to be better and stronger, more critical – more daring to try something new. Persona has been hailed as “riveting” and “stylishly austere, confronting and deeply intelligent.” Confronting and austere, yes; intelligent, perhaps. But I don’t think it is as remarkable as they make it out to be.

Theatre playlist: 20. Suite Ingmar Bergman (from Wild Strawberries), Erik Nordgren

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