This stage refit of the 1961 film is a downbeat affair, creating a black hole of tedium.
What a pity we won’t be able to go mushrooming together,” says protagonist Karin (Ruth Wilson) to her dad as she’s carted off to the hospital at the end of this Ingmar Bergman adaptation. Well, Karin’s loss is the audience’s gain: a mushroom-picking scene, on top of everything else we’ve endured, would have had viewers screaming for the men in white coats. Directed by Michael Attenborough, this stage refit of the 1961 film is a downbeat affair, in which four family members talk interminably about their relationships, creating a black hole of tedium into which the play’s few flickers of dramatic incident are sucked.
It’s clear that Karin is in for a rough ride the moment she announces “everything will be perfect this holiday” in the first scene. The family is sojourning on their beloved “island paradise,” a bonding exercise designed to bring Karin, suffering from a bipolar disorder, and teenage brother Max (Dimitri Leonidas) closer to their distant father, David (Ian McElhinney). But the tensions and revelations that result hasten Karin’s spiral into madness — to the possible benefit of David, a hack novelist seeking inspiration in his daughter’s psychological trauma.
Bergman’s original bagged an Oscar for foreign-language film, but the Almeida’s adaptation won’t long be troubling this year’s award judges. All four characters — the last is Karin’s long-suffering husband, Martin (Justin Salinger) — talk exhaustively about what they think and feel, in drab dialogue that the cast fails to resuscitate. “I’m starting to see my love for Karin and you and our life,” says McElhinney’s David, “as something practical; a kind of pardon.” Leonidas’ Max is 16 going on 26, overarticulate about his emotional inarticulacy. Even after the siblings commit incest (which Attenborough suggests with a blackout and tasteful strings), no one panics. It’s just a cue for more forensic family analysis.
The effect is alienating — not being trusted to imagine anything for ourselves, we disengage from Karin’s plight. Jenny Worton’s adaptation places Karin centerstage, to the drama’s detriment. There’s nothing edifying about watching an sick woman get sicker — unless you believe (as she does) that her psychotic episodes may be communiques from God. Yes, there’s a potentially interesting argument here about how and whether to treat a madness that may contain its own consolation. But it’s ignored in favor of Karin’s blather about living between two worlds, and tenuous parallels between art and insanity.
The contrast with, say, Anthony Neilson’s recent “The Wonderful World of Dissocia” is stark. There, we were invited inside mental illness; here, we just watch as its predictable progress unfolds. As Karin, Wilson is spirited enough, but there’s a madness-by-numbers quality to her bursts of febrile energy and her swoons. Salinger tries and fails to make of Martin anything other than the concerned, harassed spouse. McElhinney’s David is a passion vacuum: When told that his daughter has read his diary, and discovered the brutal thoughts recorded there, he reacts as if to a forecast for mild weather. That mushrooming trip could scarcely have been less exciting.