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Meredith Penman, Karen Sibbing, Persona, Fraught Outfit & Belvoir Meredith Penman, Karen Sibbing, Persona, Fraught Outfit & Belvoir
photo Ellis Parrinder
There are nights when it is impossible to mingle in the foyer after seeing a play, chatting about the experience or avoiding it altogether, casually reconnecting with the everyday as if nothing had happened. With Angels in America, The Maids and Persona, something had happened—to me.

The cleansing of fear and pity that is supposed to be ‘Catharsis’ doesn’t quite explain the traumatic impact of some performances. There’s a kind of numbness, an inner silence (not as radical as the one that besets Elisabeth in Persona, but related to it) making it difficult to offer coherent observations. Best go home to a glass of dark red wine, stillness…and silence.

In these three productions, actors and directors conspire to realise performances that take us to emotional limits and beyond to a kind of exhaustion, so much having been demanded that I sense the endurance suffered equally by the actors and their characters.

In Persona the fragile identities of two women (one would love to be the other’s sibling) dangerously overlap. In The Maids two sisters are fatally trapped in a class-imposed identity and a fantasy of revolt; and in Angels in America two men are enveloped by a disease and the politics that attempts to deny and define it; though they never meet they are protagonist and antagonist.

Belvoir and Fraught Outfit, Persona

From the beginning, Persona is sparely paced, words carefully articulated, images pronounced and few: a quietly realistic world in which a nurse, Alma (Karen Sibbing) cares for an actress, Elisabeth Vogler (Meredith Penman) who, having momentarily fallen silent in a performance of Elektra, is now completely speechless, if showing few other signs of illness. Save for a moment when the nurse, panicky about the assertiveness of her patient, rather brutally sedates her, the relationship seems initially simple.

Later in a summer cottage, having volubly and frankly revealed herself in the face of her patient’s silence and beginning to feel that she loves Elisabeth, the nurse finds her confidences betrayed and that she is merely regarded as “useful.” Alma becomes successively angry and violent. The quivering and quaking extremity of the descent Sibbing so powerfully embodies is counterpointed by Penman’s physical restraint. Alma doesn’t see the small signs of her patient’s watchfulness and disapproval.

The power of Persona first resides in its scenario: one person’s illness opens up one in another, a kind of transference in which the nurse, like her patient before her, loses her social mask. However, if we’re uncertain that Elisabeth is actually mentally ill, we come to co-inhabit Alma’s hallucinatory illness when the curtains part, in a Bergman-esque moment, to reveal the cottage surreally stripped back—furnished only with a large Victorian wall clock and a heavy Victorian chair. In a remarkable night-time scene Alma has sex with Elisabeth’s husband (who thinks she is Elisabeth) as the wife, naked, looks on. What’s striking about this scene is not just the abject trousers-around-the ankles grittiness, but the moment when we see Alma decide that she will, vengefully ‘adopt the mask’ and play the wife. Sibbing reveals an astonishing range of behaviour and states of being, from shy nervousness to raging anger, ‘nuttiness’ (in a ragged ensemble of clothing), fearful delirium and temporary calm—listing Elisabeth’s failings before descending into her own silence.

Although a very different, much more earthed performance than Bibi Andersson’s as Alma in the film, Sibbing gets the story about an earlier sexual encounter—with two teenage boys and another woman on an otherwise empty beach and in which she orgasms, feeling real for the very first time—just right. There’s an innocence, shyness and honesty about the telling with just of touch of pleasure—a reminder of Bergman’s account of being astonished at the sense of “shameful lust” with which Andersson realised the lines.

Far superior to Simon Stone and Andrew Upton’s cumbersome version of Bergman’s Face to Face (RT110, 44), Persona’s spareness and its careful re-ordering of material (we learn very early on of the likely causes of Elisabeth’s illness) make for a lucid account. And, unlike Bergman, Adena Jacobs has not cast look-alike actors, instead amplifying the sense of discrete personalities ill-fittingly bonded.

But this Persona is not the far more complex work from which it has evolved. It reverses the ending (if offering one that has its own frightening logic) and, problematically, it empties Bergman’s screenplay of its larger psychological context, reducing it to an existential drama otherwise disconnected from the world, in the same way that Simon Stone ‘denatured’ Ibsen’s The Wild Duck of class, property and environmental concerns. In the film Elisabeth has not only lost her sense of herself as actor and mother, but also of the meaning of a world in which a Buddhist monk in Vietnam immolates himself in an act of protest against war (the image flashes before us when Elisabeth suffers a panic attack). She later gazes at a famous photograph of Nazis rounding up people in the Warsaw ghetto—at the centre of which is a boy (underlining Elisabeth’s guilt about not loving her son). I recall when I first saw Persona in the late 1960s, being shocked by the first image, such was its immediacy in the midst of the Vietnam War. There is no such moment in this stage Persona.

This Persona mimics the film’s famous opening but only to the extent of having a boy, around 10 years old, enter the stage, sit and read a book, regard the audience and move his hand in a slow wave ‘across’ us before exiting. In the film there’s the glare of a projector lamp, the flicker of the celluloid gripping, rapid images of a lamb being slaughtered, a penis, a spider, a barely pre-adolescent boy in a hospital bed reading Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, then seen in intense close-up and conjuring with a wave of his hand the faces of Elisabeth and Alma, merging them. Presumably Jacobs’ prelude is simply aimed at establishing the existence of the son whom Elisabeth has rejected, while providing a knowing reference to the film. The film is punctured by another such moment when the celluloid appears to burn (some alarmed projectionists in the 60s stopped their projectors, until the spools came labelled with a warning) and the film ‘starts up’ again, this time with Alma’s deranged view of the world. In the play, in her final confrontation with Elisabeth, Alma wheels in a stage light on a stand (presumably imagining that she’s forcing Elisabeth back on stage) to provide a similar disjunction to the film’s.

The stage production otherwise borrows a little from the film, creating instead its own world and motifs in which the line between reality and its other is sparely and clinically signalled by the ebb and flow of large white curtains (also in the film), accompanied by the low rumble of breaking waves and the murmur of wind. It’s a slightly clunky design (looking more convincing in photographs of its end-on Melbourne realisation).

I was moved and disturbed by Jacobs’ Persona, shocked at its ending, not just because it is Jacobs’ not Bergman’s but by the extremity of its realisation of Alma’s decline in Sibbing’s performance—its eruption out of constraint, underlined by Penman’s nuanced restraint as Elisabeth.

Persona haunted me for days after seeing it, but having unleashed memories of the film it left me asking why, in the end, Jacobs and her fellow creators opt to so reduce the scale of Bergman’s vision? As any number of writers about the film have argued, it questions our capacity to face catastrophes (such as we do now, the largest since the 60s) as well as personal crises: do we hide behind our masks or sink into catatonia? The film will continue to haunt me in a way this play may not, but that’s not to say it won’t leave its own haunting traces in the psyche. [I discuss the production’s film references in a long version of this review online.]

Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert, The Maids, Sydney Theatre Company Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert, The Maids, Sydney Theatre Company
photo Lisa Tomasetti
STC, The Maids

I felt for Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert at the end of The Maids as I did for Sibbing in particular at the curtain call for Persona—I thought I could see the demands of the performance indelibly written on their bodies.

As with the casting of Jacobs’ Persona, the two women here do not look or sound alike (the sisters they were based on by Genet very much did), but blood, fate and class and a desperate fantasy of vengeance and escape has bound them together. They operate in counterpoint—Claire (Blanchett) tall and elegant when needs be, not at all dissimilar from Mistress (Elisabeth Debicki), their employer, the other, Solange (Huppert) short, energetic, measured. When hyperactively committed to their project to destroy their Mistress, Blanchett’s Claire is a demanding fantasist. Desperately manic when she loses the thread of her performance as the Mistress or her murderous sense of purpose she collapses emotionally and physically, dashing to vomit in the bathroom. When Solange declares, “This is killing us, Claire,” you believe it, and the possibility that Solange will really try to save her sister.

In the hands of the Mistress at the makeup table, praised and patronised, Claire is flutteringly and abjectly fragile (her back is to us but her face caught close-up on the screen). It’s an astonishingly nuanced performance which Blanchett and Benedict Andrews realise as the tragedy of an ordinary life made perverse by servitude.

Huppert’s Solange is the more emotionally consistent of the sisters, more certain of their joint task and finally her own, achieving a kind of victory in which she saves her sister from endless servitude and possibly madness—such is the extremity of Blanchett’s performance and Claire’s final collapse—by killing her. However, her motivation, revealed superbly in the great monologue in which Solange fantasises the public revelation of her deed, is fantasy in the face of actual defeat. Mistress is alive, her gangster husband out of the gaol where Claire’s letter to the police has landed him. Solange’s hubris offers us a sense of tragedy too, if a humble one—she has after all saved her sister at the expense of her own life—in a performance by Huppert that counterpoints Blanchett’s with a calmer energy, comically breaking into ungainly physical exercises, largely controlling the play acting, only momentarily beset with moments of doubt and panic and luxuriating in periods of languor and delight, small details of the great screen actor’s characterisation of Solange caught in innumerable close-ups.

Andrews’ staging of The Maids is not the claustrophobic chamber theatre of many previous productions of the play—this world is agoraphobic, a contemporary wide-open glass-walled penthouse amplifying not only the sisters’ vulnerability and paranoia but also the suspenseful recklessness of their games. In moments of doubt the sisters wonder if they are being watched; is it God? Elsewhere they defiantly flaunt themselves. They are under surveillance, by us the audience. We glimpse cameramen behind the windows; small cameras are installed in the bathroom and on the Mistress’ table. But the sense of intrusiveness is not as effectively or as powerfully realised as it was in Andrews’ The Season at Sarsaparilla and Measure for Measure. The use of verité-style shooting might yield a reality TV ambience but, seeming largely un-choreographed, it creates competition between the stage and very large screen images hovering over it. I’m well used to and like this idiom, but here had to make an early decision to go with the actors (not too hard, I was fairly close to the stage). Nonetheless, the surveillance motif played its emphatic role in underlining the fractured reality of the maids’ lives: Claire becoming Mistress, Solange playing Claire to ‘Mistress,’ reflections multiplying in windows and mirrors and on the screen. Benedict Andrews once again proves that he is Australia’s best stage director, unleashing superb performances in a provocative response to a classic text without spurious infidelities.

The sisters who murdered their mistress in France in the 1930s gouged out the eyes of their mistress and her daughter, as if refusing to ever again ‘be looked down on’ or to be caught by a diminishing gaze. Similarly in Persona, Alma’s hostility to Elisabeth derives from finding that the woman she loves and whose sister she would like to be regards her as merely plain and “useful.” In The Maids the desire to kill the Mistress is ironically counterpointed with a desire to be like her, the double bind evident in the sisters’ abjection, in the face of her condescension, which Debicki plays masterfully. With frightening perspicacity and febrile energy, Blanchett and Huppert render this trap utterly palpable, giving enduring life to Genet’s still haunting vision of the sorry complexity of lives destroyed by power, resonating with our own humiliations and resentments in the problematic order of things.

Angels in America, Belvoir Angels in America, Belvoir
Belvoir, Angels in America

Protagonist and antagonist never appear together in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. They are the emotionally and politically diametrically opposed Prior Walter (Luke Mullins) and Roy M Cohn (Marcus Graham). We experience their differences as the dynamic that drives this epic “Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” Mullins’ and Graham’s performances are psychologically and physically rich in detail and drive, the best work I’ve seen from each.

This “fantasia” with its nightmares and its angel (a mundanely realised one with small wings standing on a chair but all the more chilling for the painful ambiguity of its message) finally yields a ‘happy’ ending, a sense of hope if with many provisos and lives and love lost. Graham’s Cohn starts out fast and loud, calculatedly unmodulated, crudely logical, the ultimate self-denier, until reality finally takes a grip on him, the fault lines in his psyche cruelly revealed if not fully faced—his fears embodied in projection (the ghost of the alleged spy Ethel Rosenberg he had executed) rather than confession, which is beyond him. Graham invests his Cohn with a pulsing, defiant energy that never quite leaves him, even when succumbing to AIDS-related illnesses and night terrors.

Both men are isolated: the furtively gay Cohn by his own choosing, Prior deserted by a lover (Mitchell Butel) terrified by the symptoms of illness. Both are funny: Cohn coarsely if revealingly so while Prior is a true wit. Cohn’s demonic vulgarity barely dissipates, even in the face of those he has destroyed, but Prior’s humour evaporates with a profound darkening of his spirit in the absence of unconditional love. Together these men represent the tragedy of AIDS and of a nation, embodying hubris, suffering, insight and radical aloneness; it’s an America we know all too well, even more divided now by cruel absolutes.

The dynamic between Prior and Cohn plays out on other levels, in the relationship between Prior and Louis, Cohn’s aide Pitt (Ashley Zukerman) and his wife Harper (Amber McMahon), between Cohn and Pitt and, bridging the two worlds, the dauntingly wise black man Belize (Deobia Oparei—appearing also as the chilling Mr Lies). Fleshing out this world culturally and historically is Robyn Nevin as a Rabbi, a tramp, an ageing Bolshevik and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (shades of Thelma Ritter). Alan John’s choice of American iconic music alongside his own also evokes a larger and more present cultural picture. The sense of ensemble playing is tautly consistent as the performers work a largely empty, flexible space bound by huge tiled walls that suggest bathroom, public urinal and hospital in an un-well world. Despite some oddly determined interval breaks that test engagement, Eamon Flack’s lucid production provides relentless momentum and highly articulated characterisations.

The existential crises that dog the characters in Angels in America are induced personally and politically, circumstantially and wilfully, Kushner never letting us forget the big picture, one philosophical and cosmological. It’s a lot to take home, to let settle in the psyche beside Persona and The Maids, to ponder when I eventually rise out of the numbness, that emotional exhaustion and its consonant empathy with the performers of these challenging visions.

A French play, an American play and a variation on a Swedish film: we make these classics ours while we await our own.

Belvoir, Fraught Outfit, Persona, creators Adena Jacobs, Dayna Morrissey, Danny Pettingill, Belvoir Theatre, 26 July-18 Aug; Sydney Theatre Company, The Maids, writer Jean Genet, translation Benedict Andrews, Andrew Upton, Sydney Theatre, 8 June-20 July; Belvoir, Angels in America, writer Tony Kushner, director Eamon Flack, Belvoir Theatre, Sydney, 1 June-27 July

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 34-35

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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