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Kerry Fox, Face to Face, Sydney Theatre Company Kerry Fox, Face to Face, Sydney Theatre Company
photo Ellis Parrinder
FOR SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY, BELVOIR RESIDENT DIRECTOR SIMON STONE AND STC CO-ARTISTIC DIRECTOR ANDREW UPTON HAVE ADAPTED FOR THE STAGE THE SCREENPLAY OF AN INGMAR BERGMAN FILM FROM 1976, FACE TO FACE. WHILE THE SCREENPLAY HAS A CHAMBER THEATRE INTENSITY THAT OFFERS EASY ADAPTABILITY, ITS FOCUS ON ONE PERSON’S NERVOUS BREAKDOWN AND HER ESCALATING IMMERSION IN VISIONS AND NIGHTMARES CREATES A SIGNIFICANT CHALLENGE FOR THE ADAPTORS AND DIRECTOR STONE, AND A WONDERFUL FILM ACTOR KERRY FOX, PLAYING THE ROLE MADE FAMOUS BY LIV ULLMAN.

Bergman made some of the greatest films of the 20th century: intelligent, visceral and darkly existential. He was also a leading European theatre director. His theatrical sensibility so informed his films that we might regard his filmmaking as an innovative synthesis of film and theatre. It’s no surprise that Simon Stone would want to direct something written by Bergman. I spoke with him about the appeal of the screenplay and how he and Upton would deal with those Bergman fundamentals—dream and the human face.

How did you come to this screenplay in the first place?

While I was writing The Wild Duck (RT102) I was reading lots of Bergman screenplays because I wanted to find a screenplay-like formula to make the sense of fate in The Wild Duck more ‘fateful,’ rather than constructed. I love that sense that the theatre just needs to bring on what needs to happen next. And I think a lot of Shakespeare’s best plays are great for the fact that there’s this passage of inevitabilities that come on to the stage. I wanted to explore something different with The Wild Duck—I wanted to explore what tragedy is like if it feels avoidable. If it feels like the structure of the show has multiplicity in it and therefore there are a million other versions that could have happened. Cinema certainly lets you feel that because the camera could have been pointing in any direction, gone to any location and have followed any character. So the sense of freedom in that makes it feel fateful. So I was reading a lot of Bergman because he’s got the same brutal honesty about the human instinct.

Just the way that Bergman is unapologetic about the way humans are towards each other was a really strong guide for me. So I watched a lot of Bergman and read a lot of Bergman screenplays. I think I’d kind of managed to not notice that he’d made Face to Face even in my reading of his autobiography. I thought, wow! How is this not a better-known film? As a screenplay it’s actually remarkably acute and really the most fascinating insight into depression and madness that he wrote, I think. But the dreams were the problem in it and Bergman certainly wrote about being unsatisfied with the way he’d resolved the dreams. I’m trying to find a theatrical solution, not just to to resolve something that Bergman felt was unresolved but also resolve something that can’t be resolved in the same way.

Without the machinery of the camera or the close-up or…

That’s exactly right. It’s a particular challenge because the ghost of Bergman can’t really guide me other than through all of the influences I know he had, like Strindberg’s bluntness in A Dream Play where he just brings someone on and they announce who they are and why they’re there and what they want, and the play moves on. The fact that Bergman directed that play five times in his life has been more of a guide for me in terms of how to resolve the dreams onstage in this and what else might need to be written for Jenny to get to the point of breakdown in the play.

So you’ve had to come up with different kinds of dreams and visions?

It’s become much more Strindbergian. People come in, they convey memories, they are moments in Jenny’s past knocking on the door of her consciousness. They’re very explicable; you need to find solutions to something that has actually been written in quite a mundane way like all great dreams—like all of Tarkovsky’s dreams, and Bergman thought Tarkovsky was the only filmmaker who ever solved dream. It’s actually a slowing down of life rather than a speeding up of it turning into something more hectic and awful. It’s something much more contemplative and meandering. That’s what I’ve gone for. It’s reminded me a bit of Marguerite Duras’ La Musica (1974): two characters can talk their entire relationship through as theatrical text in a way that in real life just doesn’t happen.

So no flashbacks or the stage equivalent of a vaseline-smudged camera lens?

No, that all happens in the audience’s mind as these series of spectres enter Jenny’s room and talk to her about her past, which is proving much more successful. The constant is that she’s in a hospital room, having survived a suicide attempt. And that’s really heartbreaking because no matter what Jenny must have been like when she was a 14-year old girl, it’s always juxtaposed with the fact that she’s in a room recovering from a suicide attempt. So there’s a melancholy in that, which is very beautiful.

So the hospital room post-suicide attempt has become a frame?

Which is actually as close as you can get, I suppose, to the way cinema can move fluidly between one reality and the other—by not changing the lights, not changing the furniture or anything in the room, not using it as a tabula rasa. It is very much just one space.

A friend who’s a Bergman scholar wrote that he felt more at ease watching the films on DVD by himself rather than sharing them in a cinema with other people. They’re so emotionally raw.

For that reason, in the theatre it’s going to be even more confronting. I always have a sense whenever I read a Bergman screenplay or watch a Bergman film that he’s managed to understand something about the way my brain works that no-one else has been able to put into words for me to understand it.

There’s something at once very thoughtful and very visceral about Bergman’s films.

I remember seeing Winter Light for the first time and being astounded by the fact that the Max Von Sydow character was so terrified of the bomb, that Bergman was making films that were so unadorned and so completely cathartic of these everyday terrors. Bergman, from the beginning of his career, was unveiling these horrors at the centre of men and women. I was watching a black and white film that was so brutally honest about human psychology—not in any way melodramatic. Look at what was happening in Italy at the same time, it was as formally exciting and as wonderful in terms of its reducing life to basic truths, but the form of delivery in those Italian films was still quite melodramatic. Even in Antonioni, the performances of Monica Vitti particularly were still in the mode of 1930s Italian melodrama, whereas Bergman for some reason—probably because of his isolation geographically—had managed by the 60s to get to the point where actors were just sitting, not changing their facial expression and telling a story. Just a face. The restraint in that.

How will you deal with the face? And with Jenny’s dreams?

That’s the biggest challenge, a dual challenge—firstly to find a way for the equivalent of a close-up to be achieved, for an audience to see the way a person’s body language is manifesting just facial expression. How do you do that on a stage when an audience can look anywhere? Secondly, what complicated that was the way we traditionally solve cinematic language on stage in terms of creating elliptical, seamless staging, where people come on before other scenes are finished and objects appear. How to differentiate that from a dream reality was very difficult because the way we solve dream on stage is very similar to the way we solve multiple locations and multiple timescales that cinema texts provoke. There are various ways of doing that, of setting the whole thing in one place and it transforms itself. Or having it on a bare stage where things come and go and things overlap. Nevertheless, both of those will end up looking like dream.

So, I actually needed to find a journey through the show that started off focusing on the person, the face—and the show has to follow that character’s response to everything they’re watching. But then we need to resolve that into essentially a ‘second theatre’ [of dreams] so different from the first theatre that it feels so contained and concrete, rather than abstract, that the audience is very aware of the difference between those two modes. [That involves] a change of style in the text, which is slightly scary because sometimes suddenly changing a style of storytelling half-way through a piece of theatre can be disconcerting and disorientating. But it’s disorientation for good rather than evil.


Sydney Theatre Company, Face to Face, a film by Ingmar Bergman, adaptation by Andrew Upton, Simon Stone, director Simon Stone, Sydney Theatre, Aug 7-Sept 8, www.sydneytheatre.com.au

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 38

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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