Throughout this year’s isolation, of my few personal joys has been discovering the filmography of Ingmar Bergman and performance’s of Liv Ullman. Call me a sadist, but the ability of the Scandinavian auteur and his muse to transport, titillate and traumatise me all at once has offered the sick twisted thrill I needed to get through what has otherwise been an incredibly lacklustre year. (I will happily go to my grave fighting that Ullman is the greatest actor of all time. She was robbed at the 1976 Academy Awards. Shame on you Faye Dunaway.)
It was with considerable excitement that I therefore set out to write this week’s archive feature on Fraught Outfit’s theatrical adaptation of Bergman’s 1966 cinematic horror masterpiece, Persona, which was presented at Theatre Works in 2012.
“Elizabeth is an actress. One night, in the middle of Elektra, she falls silent. Nervous breakdown? Spiritual crisis? Illness? Attention seeking? No-one can say. She is sent to the seaside to recover. As Elizabeth’s silence continues, her nurse Alma begins to speak and Bergman’s signature themes kick into life: enigmatic acts of love and kindness, dangerous heights of obsession and need…”
Persona (the film) is about two women: a nurse and her famous-actor patient, Elisabet, whose identities merge in a remote seaside cottage.
With rights for adaptation only becoming available upon Bergman’s death in 2007, Theatre Works partnered with Fraught Outfit to produce what was close to a world first in transitioning Bergman from screen to stage. Persona (the show) stayed true to the source material, examining the shared isolation of two women in a seaside cottage; one who won’t speak, and one who can’t stop. Led under the direction of Fraught Outfit’s Artistic Director Adena Jacobs (a visionary creative in her own right), this ambitious adaptation was in safe hands.
As a filmmaker, Bergman has a reputation for detailed and abstract exploration of the female psyche; for delving into subconscious desire in a way that was unfounded for its time, even for European cinema. Considered a game changing exploration into phycological horror, Bergman cited Persona (and later Cries and Whisper – also an astonishing and challenging piece of cinema that I would pay good money to see Adena Jacob’s adapt) as “touch(ing) wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover” and an achievement in going as ‘far as he could go’ as a film-maker.
Needless to say, Jacobs had her work cut out for her in finding the theatrical in what was considered a quintessential embodiment of the possibilities of cinema. On screen, Persona displayed a gateway into the subconscious and the complexities of identity. In transitioning to the stage, it turned its attention outward, presenting a theatrical close-up about our basic human need to be seen and known by another person.
In an interview with Time Out, Jacobs outlined her approach to adaptation:
“We’re not trying to repeat the film on stage. What we’re doing is responding to the themes and the core poetics of the film through performance. What I’m interested in is the radical intimacy that Bergman deals with. In his films, it’s about the closeness of the face, but in theatre I think intimacy needs to be thought of in a completely different way… There’s some question I have around making the audience complicit in something that is taboo – presenting them with something that they shouldn’t be watching…. I’m interested in how we deal with the act of expressing grief. I find the responses of both women incredibly fascinating. One either voluntarily or involuntarily becomes silent, and the other succumbs as language becomes a kind of mask that dissolves, obliterating her. The violence of that, and the horror, is the most crucial part of the content.”
The adaptation was ultimately a significant critical and commercial success, receiving return season’s at both the Malthouse Theatre and Belvoir the following year. It was the recipient of five Green Room Awards, alongside further recognition with THE MONTHLY and Time Out winning BEST THEATRE PRODUCTION 2012 and BEST PRODUCTION ON THE MEDIUM STAGE respectively.
Rather than summarise the abundance of glowing critical praise, I’ll let the following quotes speak for themselves as they describe was undoubtably an astonishing and rare triumph of the stage.
“Breathtaking…stunning…..Fraught Outfit have achieved great, almost unfathomable success with Persona. A remarkable production.”
CASSIE TONGUE – AUSSIE THEATRE
“Subtle, detailed and truthful, this collaboration transfers the mystery at the heart of Bergman’s film intact, while entirely remaking it. AsI said, miraculous.”
ALISON CROGGON – THEATRE NOTES
“The film is considered one of last century’s greatest works of art and Fraught Outfit’s production doesn’t fall too far behind such an accolade in this new century. This is compelling and compulsory theatre.”
LLOYD BRADFORD SKYE – CRIKEY
“Persona is an act of majestic ambition, an affirmation of what great theatre can do.”
CAMERON WOODHEAD – BEHIND THE CRITICAL CURTAIN
ELISSA BLAKE – SUN HERALD
Winner of 5 Green Room Awards:
Best Independent Production
Best Set Design
Best Lighting Design
Best Female Performer – Karen Sibbing
Following the success of Persona, Adena Jacobs has since gone on to have an envious career working with the English National Opera, and as resident director for both Belvoir and the Malthouse Theatre. Fraught Outfit was welcomed back to Theatre Works in 2017 with the stunning and innovative, all child production of “The Book of Exodus Parts 1 & 2.”
The team involved in the original Theatre Works production is as follows:
MEREDITH PENMAN, DANIEL SCHLUSSER, KAREN SIBBING, Hugo Donath/Harrisson Connor Feldman
More information about Fraught Outfit and their exquisite body of work can be found via their website: https://www.fraughtoutfit.com.au/