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Persona – Fraught Outfit

The surreal Bergman film becomes a hugely powerful and accomplished work of theatre.
By Rima Sabina Aouf
July 22, 2013
By Rima Sabina Aouf
July 22, 2013

In the opening scene of Persona, a boy (Sean Campbell) who looks set for a wholesome school camp sits at the front of the stage reading a book. After a while, he brings his heavy binoculars to his eyes and continues reading through them — kids, huh? Then he turns the binoculars on the audience. We stay like that a while, then he leaves.

It's the first of many moments in which Melbourne company Fraught Outfit try to interpret the surreal cinema of Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966) — which begins with a self-aware projection of various unappetising videos, ending on a boy reading a book in a roomful of corpses — into surreal theatre. Again and again they pull it off with disarming creativity and acuity.

The conceit of the story is that there are basically only two characters, one who cannot speak and one who can't not. It is an enduring lapse of human judgement that we confuse silence for listening and listening for caring. Elisabeth Vogler (Meredith Penman) is an actor who in the middle of a performance of Elektra falls silent for a minute. The next day, she stops speaking entirely. She is admitted to hospital and, when no physiological basis is found for her condition, sent to the seaside to recuperate, in the care of her nurse, Sister Alma (Karen Sibbing).

Alma soon reads a friendship into their largely one-sided interaction, sharing some of her deepest secrets, imagining how much the two have in common and completely dropping her guard. When her confidence is betrayed, things get brutal — and metaphoric. The film supports myriad interpretations, and this Persona creates a parallel intellectual playground, all on the shoulders of two women whose distress is tangible and unnerving.

Director Adena Jacobs developed this work collaboratively with both performance and design at the centre, and it shows. The set by Dayna Morrissey, charged with lighting by Danny Pettingill and sound by Russell Goldsmith, is a wonder. It's beautiful to look at, gently invoking a just-gone era of Swedish minimalism, but it also plays a big symbolic role, using framing and depth to re-create something of the cinematic wide, medium and close-up shot as well as something of the layers of the psyche.

Vastly different things are required of actors Penman, Sibbing and Daniel Schlusser, who briefly wafts in as Elisabeth's husband, and they each nail it. Sibbing carries the greatest load, and it's because she manages to be so amiable in her nattering and so understandable in her hysterics that we stay on the journey. She's powerful, unflinching and persuasive.

Persona was one of the most acclaimed productions of last year in Melbourne, where it won five Green Room Awards including Best Production and came back for a return season in June. Will it be embraced as much by Sydney? It's perhaps more cool and aloof than what we'd usually respond to en masse, but it's also stylish, cerebral and intoxicating. A huge accomplishment, Persona is one of those works you'll be thinking about weeks, perhaps years, afterwards, and you won't want to miss this chance to let it burrow into your subconscious.

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