The third, and final, part of Ivan van Hove/Toneelgroop Amsterdam’s Barbican residency is a double bill of short film adaptations: both from popular Swedish writer Ingmar Bergman; both with the same cast; and both somewhat cryptic pieces covering themes of personal identity and truth in the theatre.
After the Rehearsal covers a post-rehearsal conversation between obsessive, genius director Hendrik Vogler (van Aschat) and his female lead, Anna (Jansen). They flirt, they verbally needle each other, and Anna probes as to the nature of the relationship between Vogler and her mother, Rachel (Heebink): cue blurred-timeline flashback to a not too dissimilar conversation between the pair many years earlier. There are some strong performances here, particularly from van Aschat, but sadly it’s all weighed down by some tired tropes – particularly that of the tortured (male) virtuoso and their attractive (female) muse – which come off at best worn out. There is certainly an air of tongue-in-cheek humour here, mostly surrounding the distinct meta-theatre of the whole scenario, but it doesn’t quite manage to redeem itself from this.
perhaps the most positive thing about After the Rehearsal is its use as a thematic prelude to the far more satisfying Persona
Strangely, the first play also finds itself bogged down by its surtitles, which sit limply above the performance and somehow don’t capture the slickness they’ve shown in previous productions. The punishing pace of the back-and-forth means there’s a lot of flicking between text and actor, often choosing between understanding the plot and taking in the depth of the performances. This is compounded by written language which doesn’t capture the individualism the actors have brought to the roles, and slides that sometimes fail to keep up with the speech, hanging too long on a line that clearly passed some seconds before. It’s a bizarre technical mistake, and one that the group have done well to avoid in the past.
Unfortunately, perhaps the most positive thing about After the Rehearsal is its use as a thematic prelude to the far more satisfying Persona. Whilst it stands strong as a complete piece, this second play works brilliantly as a second act: the audience are primed on themes, and imprinted with a mother-daughter relationship between Heebink and Jansen, which van Hove works hard to build upon and toy with when he sees fit.
Heebink now plays renowned stage actor Elisabeth Vogler, admitted to a psychiatric hospital after suffering a catatonic breakdown on stage which left her unwilling or unable to talk. Alma (Jansen) is assigned to her care, and quickly bonds with Elisabeth, finding her quiet listening allows her to explore herself with newfound self-obsession.
it’s impossible not to see them together – something which doesn’t become apparent till quite a way through
Van Hove really digs into ideas of conflicting truth and falsity here. Nakedness is a much-used visual metaphor, with long-time van Hove designer/collaborator Jan Versweyveld creating a spectacular set: claustrophobic walls of a hospital are breathtakingly stripped away to reveal the vast open waters of Fårö. Yet soon after, during a cold, wet tempest, lights are brought up to lay bare the ugly fans and pumps that have created the theatrical spectacle. Likewise, van Hove contrasts the stark, brutal exposure of a naked Elisabeth on a surgical table with the joyful self-expression of the two women stripping naked and dancing in the rain. This all wonderfully interweaves other aspects of truth, with base urges and sexual instinctiveness, but also with childlike naivety and childish pretences.
Persona is a brilliant tapestry of ideas, with some excellent execution. The pacing is appropriately slow, giving space for the rich beauty to gradient into a foreboding emptiness. Both Heebink and Jansen are spectacular, and the slower pace allows much more focus on their performances than the hasty first play. But whilst Persona is the stronger of the pairing, it’s impossible not to see them together – something which doesn’t become apparent till quite a way through. It’s a wily choice of plays.
Of course, the meta-theatre is also a deeply suitable way to end a residency so focused on theatricality and the use of theatre as a medium. There were few unifying factors (company excepted) to the three productions, but chief among them was their universally adapted nature – each of the six plays a van Hove statement on modern theatre.
After the Rehearsal/Persona then works well as a bottle cap to the residency
Roman Tragedies still stands out as the best of the three – a set of old plays about older subjects adapted to emphasise history’s role in building society. The added audience intimacy and focus on political primacy transformed three relatively turgid Shakespearean histories into massive modern masterpieces. But if Roman Tragedies was the best, Obsession was certainly the worst – a failed attempt to produce the abstract from the realist which lost everything that made the film special and gained little in its place.
After the Rehearsal/Persona then works well as a bottle cap to the residency. Both certainly lost something from the films, with both using clever camerawork to evoke intense psychodrama – but what they lost was more than made up for in the exposure of artistic mechanisms that the theatre provided, whether it was After the Rehearsal’s stage on a stage or Persona’s collapsing walls and huge exposed fans. The pair are absolutely worth seeing for this alone.
After the Rehearsal/Persona is playing at the Barbican until the 30th September, more information here.
Image: Jan Versweyveld