Sunday, August 19, 2012

Face to Face adapted for the stage from the film by Ingmar Bergman, by Andrew Upton and Simon Stone

Kerry Fox as Jenny
Face to Face adapted for the stage from the film by Ingmar Bergman, by Andrew Upton and Simon Stone.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Theatre, August 7 – September 8, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 18

For this show my review must be split into two parts – the success of the adaptation and the quality of the production.

When I saw Bergman’s film some 30 years ago, I had doubts about the question of psychological truth.  I had no doubts about Liv Ullman’s capacity to act with the sense of internal intensity which Bergman’s use of close up and lengthy shots of her facial expression required. 

But I was never quite comfortable with the seemingly interminable “dream” sequence of Jenny’s fantasies, growing out of her close relationship with her father, tragically cut off at the age of 9 when he, driving home drunk from a party, crashed and killed himself and Jenny’s mother, who, Jenny believed, had never loved her.

At the time I saw too much of Freud’s unsupportable theory of the Oedipus complex in this.  Because film makes one feel that you are watching reality, these doubts left me appreciative of Liv Ullman, the actor, but not of Jenny, the character created by Bergman.

This adaptation resolves the problem for me.  Theatre is necessarily artificial, and, if done artfully, can reflect experience not as in a simple mirror but as if we, watching, can gradually identify with the character’s experience as we get to know her through her physical presence.  This requires not only an actor to appreciate, in this case Kerry Fox, but staging techniques which create symbolically a context, within the black box of a theatre, for us to accept the character’s mental life as hers and for us to respond emotionally.

Especially, Simon Stone and Andrew Upton (who, by the way, will continue as artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company for another 3 years) made the hospital scene, as Jenny recovers from her attempted suicide, absolutely entirely brilliant white as she sleeps and dreams, but just slightly warmer off-white as she wakes into normal reality.  It’s a simple theatrical device, done with delicacy, which allows us to see that Jenny believed, being the psychiatrist of her day, in the Oedipus complex, but comes through to realising that it is childhood trauma and others’ uneducated reactions to her expression of the resulting feelings that led to her adult feelings of inadequacy and her need to block out her capacity for love.

And, in addition, Upton and Stone have Jenny and her 14 year-old daughter, who not surprisingly thinks her mother doesn’t love her, play out the final scene – where Jenny tells Anna (Jessica Nash) of her attempted suicide – as a tentative game, kicking a ball to each other, unlikely in reality but symbolically representing both Jenny’s and Anna’s state of play, and Jenny’s now normal understanding of her self-harming behaviour.

So the adaptation works very well indeed.  It is not Bergman’s film on stage; it is better than Bergman’s film, because it is on stage.

Then it is not surprising that the production – acting, set design, scene changes, lighting and sound – are up to the best, as we have come to expect from the STC.  Kerry Fox was getting much praise in the foyer, as she should, but all the actors gave her the ensemble platform on which to perform.  Because most of their characters are memory/fantasy figures it could have been too easy to go over the top, but even the most extreme characters, like Queenie van de Zandt’s socialite Elizabeth and John Gaden’s demented Uncle, were played precisely within the right disciplinary bounds; while Tomas, the character we see as right on the borderline of Jenny’s reality, is played so discreetly by Mitchell Butel that we all understand why Jenny responds to him as she returns to being able to love.

The set design and lighting, starting from the traditional rule of ‘less is more’, is surprising, exciting and exactly right, supported by music nicely chosen. Everything technical went without a hitch with scene shifting (a complete restaurant setting at one point), a whole ceiling on the fly, a physical transparent fourth wall and front apron action becoming a performance in itself – yet always supporting the drama, never taking focus away.

Bookings for the rest of the season at this point are not up to the full house mark that this production deserves.  It’s more than an interesting experiment in adapting a film to the stage.  It’s a great production of a fascinating drama.  Do your best not to miss it.