Bergman estate open to adaptation

Who knew that the word “dramaturg” came from Ingmar Bergman and his dramaturg, Ulla Amberg?

That’s just one apocryphal Bergman factoid (Webster’s dates “dramaturg” back to 1870) that theater producer Andrew Higgie has collected over the half dozen years it has taken him to get the filmmaker’s “Through a Glass Darkly” screenplay up and running as a stage play at London’s Almeida Theater.

For the wildly eclectic producer — Higgie is also a producer of the Broadway-bound “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” tuner — it all began six years ago over dinner with fellow Aussie Cate Blanchett.

“We were talking about Chekhov, and when was the last time you’d seen a Bergman screenplay done onstage, because he is so like Chekhov,” Higgie recalls. “Hang on! None of us had seen an adaptation of a Bergman screenplay. And he is so ripe for stage adaptation.”

In the English-language world, only three screenplays have been sanctioned by the Bergman Foundation for production onstage: “Through a Glass Darkly,” adapted by Jenny Worton and opened June 16 at London’s Almeida Theater; “The Devil’s Eye,” adapted by Michael Moon, and recently performed at Hollywood’s Arena Stage; and a 2009 amateur production of “The Seventh Seal,” staged at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Center.

In 2008, Trevor Nunn did bring Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage” to Coventry’s Belgrade Theater, but that was adapted from a teleplay, written by the Swedish filmmaker when he was living in exile in Germany due to income tax problems back home.

“‘Scenes From a Marriage’ was first done onstage in the Soviet Union, and not sanctioned by the estate,” says Higgie. Since then, however, it has become Bergman’s most performed screen-to-stage piece, followed closely by the teleplays “Saraband,” “From the Life of the Marionettes” and “After the Rehearsal” and the screenplays “Autumn Sonata,” “Persona” and “Winter Light” — all of which are extremely popular in continental Europe and Scandinavia, with productions as far flung as Seoul, Buenos Aires and Mexico City.

Productions in England and the U.S. have been slower to materialize, says Michael Callahan, an agent at London-based Josef Weinberger, which handles performance rights to Bergman’s written works. “A lot of it has to do with the royalties split in the English-language market by the time you get a translator involved. In (continental) Europe, the director of the theater usually does the adaptation. Also, there has been a stigma” (attached to these film and TV scripts, because Bergman himself was notorious for wanting to keep them offstage.) “That’s not the case with the Bergman Foundation,” Callahan adds.

Nunn’s production of “Scenes From a Marriage” might have transferred to London if not for casting availability. “Which would have potentially led to New York,” says Callahan, who is now in talks with a Gotham-based theater producer about a new version of the Bergman teleplay.

In an unusual turn of events, Bergman actually sanctioned the “Through a Glass Darkly” adaptation before his death, in 2007, but only after a lengthy correspondence.

“He insisted on hand-written letters,” says Higgie. “He was extremely restrictive in his approach to his own work. It is less so now(with the Foundation).”

In part, Bergman was concerned that the 1961 film about a mentally disturbed young woman and her family was dated and the characters flawed. Higgie wrote back to him that “Macbeth” and “Hamlet” were also flawed and that “incest and the relationships between a daughter, brother, husband and father will never be dated.” Obviously, Higgie won that argument. “If not, I had 10 handwritten letters from Ingmar Bergman!” he adds.

Worton’s adaptation of “Glass” was first performed in a reading last summer in Stockholm at the inaugural Ingmar Bergman Intl. Theater Festival, along with a Dutch-language “Cries and Whispers.”

Regarding her work on “Glass,” Worton found the Bergman Foundation and Weinberger “very trusting. The intention behind (the adaptation) was to stick to the essence of the film. It is not seeking to do something different. They’ve been very free about it, and haven’t sought approval of final draft.”

Perhaps because Moon started with Weinberger, and not Bergman himself, the adaptation process has been more controlled. “Things could be cut and removed, but nothing could be added. Not a single word,” says Moon, who relied on his wife, Anna Lerbom, to translate the script into English. Lerbom grew up on the island of Faro, Sweden, where Bergman resided, and which is the setting of “Through a Glass Darkly.”

“The Devil’s Eye,” released in 1960, is one of Bergman’s rare comedies, about Don Juan’s encounter with a virgin. Much to Moon’s delight, the screenplay contains 15 pages of dialogue not included in the finished film version. “So much of the text never made it into the film. So many of the Bergman silences that involve closeups of these wonderful expressive faces are filled with dialogue that was written and perhaps rehearsed but not filmed.”

The legit interest in Bergman TV and film scripts tends to be focused on his talkier, less visually expansive works. Then again, after its amateur Cardiff production, “The Seventh Seal” will soon receive another staging, this time in Vladivostock, Siberia.

“It’s that part of Russia that Sarah Palin can see from Alaska,” jokes Callahan.

One major Bergman restriction remains even after his death. While the teleplays and screenplays may be adapted to the stage, they can never be filmed again.

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