Almeida Theatre, London N1
Opened 16 June, 2010

A most ingenious paradox: the playtext of Jenny Worton’s adaptation published for this stage première carries the standard caveat that it went to press during rehearsals and so the text may not yet be firmly fixed... yet the back cover proclaims that it was “personally approved by Bergman”, who died in 2007. Via a ouija board, perhaps, or reported by the ethereal voices heard by schizophrenic Karin in the play through the crack in the attic wall of her family’s Baltic island holiday cottage. Maybe he sanctioned an earlier version, such as that given a reading at last year’s Bergman Festival in Stockholm, when the adaptation was credited to Andrew Upton rather than Worton.

The paradoxes keep coming. This stage version contains, I would guess, around twice as much dialogue as Bergman’s 1961 film (which he considered the first in a trilogy of chamber films about belief in God), yet lasts only a few minutes longer and, most puzzling of all, seems significantly less eloquent. In so many ways it is all about fullness and emptiness. As often with Bergman, much of the texture comes from the magnificent cinematography of Sven Nykvist, who creates a depth of field which makes that attic simultaneously claustrophobic and a limitless wilderness. This corresponds with the interior of the characters: Karin’s doctor husband Martin, her teenage brother Max (originally Minus) and their renowned novelist father David. Each finds themselves in their own way packed with thoughts yet all but empty of meaning to themselves. Karin seeks redemption through her delusions, Max through creativity, David through something to replace his art and Martin through a kind of desiccated will. In Worton’s adaptation, each gets to talk at some length about what they do and don’t think, yet these words do not fill the psychological space. The Almeida remains, as it were, the small to medium-sized venue that it is; oddly, despite our physically sharing a room with these people, the experience feels flatter than the two dimensions of the film screen.

Michael Attenborough directs with scrupulous restraint; Justin Salinger’s Martin and Ian McElhinney’s David are substantial foils to Karin, who here is unambiguously the protagonist, both in her own right and as her late mother’s daughter. Ruth Wilson turns in an excellent performance as someone trapped between two worlds, but that’s where this Karin is: between. In the film she seems to inhabit both at once.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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