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Stuart King

Review: PERSONA at The Riverside Studios

Sister Alma (Olivier award winner, Alice Krige) is sent to a remote summer beach house tasked with helping renowned stage actress Elizabet (Nobuhle Mngcgweni) recover from a psychological breakdown and coax her from her self-imposed silence.

Alice Krige, William Close and Nobuhle Mngcwengi. Photo by Pamela RaithAlice Krige, William Close and Nobuhle Mngcwengi in Persona at the Riverside Studios. Photo by Pamela Raith.

Ingmar Bergman’s iconic and ponderous 1966 movie, which is considered by many to be a groundbreaking psychological masterpiece, has influenced the likes of David Lynch and Robert Altman in their film-making careers. Here, in the well-meaning but significantly less accomplished hands of Paul Schoolman it has been adapted into a play which incorporates his own on-stage presence as Narrator. In this role, he treats us to Bergman’s original thoughts and script notes in a misguided attempt to add subtext and move the plot along. As a theatrical device, the result is both obfuscating and irritating in equal measure.

The piece is further embellished with an outlandishly large stringed instrument - ostentatiously dubbed an Earth Harp - which is strung above the heads of the audience and is played on-stage by its inventor William Close. With its twangs and reverberations challenging the hissing air-con for supremacy, the unamplified actors have little chance to achieve clear audibility, never mind have their philosophical outpourings and esoteric angst understood.

The Riverside Studios has recently reopened after an extensive 5 year redevelopment costing an estimated £50 million, yet this production’s 200 seat auditorium suffers from poorly designed row positioning (in relation to the shallow-depth of the performance area), resulting in most patrons having to endure half their view obscured by the heads in front. This seems both unforgivable and entirely avoidable given modern design tools and testing. The single entrance/exit point also meant that audience members took an inordinately frustrating amount of time to vacate the theatre after the performance and much grumbling was audible from patrons at the back.

Despite the many worthy deeds and previous work of the participants, this reviewer has rarely endured a more pompously self-worthy piece of theatrical grandstanding. I would strongly urge theatregoers to avoid it like a CoronaVirus, unless you have a predilection for seascape projections (which offered some calming respite from the tediously pretentious on-stage debacle). There are far more enjoyable, thought-provoking and energising pieces of theatre on offer elsewhere. Alternatively watch Bergman’s original and infinitely more accomplished film version.