London Theater Review: Ivo van Hove’s ‘After the Rehearsal/Persona’

Ivo van Hove’s frosty Ingmar Bergman double-bill lets two cinematic classics bounce off each other.

After the Rehearsal Persona review
Jan Versweyveld

Cinema has long been Ivo van Hove’s treasure trove. In turning to its old masters – Pasolini, Visconti, Cassavertes – the Belgian director has found new stories for the stage. He’s made Ingmar Bergman, in particular, his go-to movie man and, after adaptations of “Cries and Whispers” and “Scenes from a Marriage,” he pairs two of the Swede’s stand-alone films to find them rippling with reflections.

Persona” (1966) is the better known – a cinematic classic in its own right. In it, an experienced actress, Elisabet Volger (Marieke Heebink), is struck mute and ordered to an isolated island retreat with her young nurse, Alma (Gaite Jansen). It’s a cryptic, unnerving piece – Bergman refused to explain it in his lifetime – but it circles ideas of performance and identity, particularly for women in terms of aging and attraction. As the two women strike up a trust, even a friendship of sorts, they start to see themselves in each other.

“After the Rehearsal,” made for television 18 years later, treads similar ground. Set in a rehearsal room after-hours, it shows a middle-aged male director, Henrik Volger (Gijs Scholten van Aschat), seducing his latest starlet (Jansen), only to slip into a memory of doing the same with her mother (Heebink), an insecure alcoholic. Rather than jump-cutting off into the past, as Bergman did, van Hove lets past and present overlap and, once again, the two women, one old and one young, come to reflect one another.

By releasing these theater stories back into the theater, van Hove draws out their underlying quality – doubleness. (Pairing them up only doubles down on that.) Both dwell on the distance between being and seeming – specifically, the gap between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us – and that dynamic is integral to the stage. Both invoke the way we perform ourselves in real life – particularly for women, in light of the male gaze.

“After the Rehearsal,” first up, tunes us into that. Van Aschat’s director manipulates two performances from Jansen’s actress – one in her character, the other out of it, as she fawns for his favor. At times, he seems to slip into performance himself, playing the self-possessed, successful artist, holding forth on the art of acting as he keeps his evident insecurities at bay. A camera catches her watching – perhaps fascinated or maybe just feigning interest. Van Hove and designer Jan Versweyeveld layer up the artifice, turning the room into a film set of its own.

Her mother Rachel, by contrast, can’t hold herself back. A shambling alcoholic, she’s too drunk or too frail for that. Heebink’s fantastic – almost falling out of herself as she pleads for his attention. The sense is that she was his rehearsal; the practiced swagger of middle-aged men at odds with the brittleness of older women, tossed aside as their looks fade. The safe space of the rehearsal room is anything but.

Played back to back, “Persona” could almost pass for a sequel. Doubling collapses the distance between the two stories and their characters, and Heebink’s catatonic Elisabet – first seen naked on a hospital slab like a marble statue,caught between agony and ecstasy – could be some future version of her jangling Rachel, paralyzed by old anxieties. She’s superb twice over.

Our brain might fuse the two stories, but van Hove only overlays them. One echoes the other. Their patterns repeat – variations on a theme. Both are played in isolation – Versweyveld’s grey box doubles as rehearsal room and hospital ward, before the walls give way to show an island stranded in a spectral stage lake – and in mechanized environments. The director’s speakers and stage lights, so manipulative and dishonest, are replaced by nature’s wind-turbines and rain machines, as if he were playing God. In that, the two enrich each other’s ideas. The director’s overbearing male presence in “After the Rehearsal” makes its absence on the island in “Persona” all the more keenly felt. The plays perform in relation to one another.

It does, however, make for a long, arduous evening – and not just because it involves three hours of surtitles. For all their thematic resonance and the richness of thought, both are intricate encounters that struggle to sustain their drama. That’s as much about pace – van Hove keeps their climaxes in check – as it is about space. Their dense psychology diffuses on the vast Barbican stage. The characters seem smaller than they should – like figurines in a sculpture. Van Hove’s more interested in patterns than he is in people, and his staging’s so clinical it’s hard to care. Doubling deconstructs the ideas, but it disarms the emotions. Both films are meant to detonate alone.

“After the Rehearsal/Persona”
Barbican Centre, London; 1156 seats; £60 ($70) top. Opened, reviewed April 25, 2017. Running time: 2 HOURS, 50 MIN.

A Toneelgroup Amsterdam production of two one-act plays based on films by Ingmar Bergman

Directed by Ivo Van Hove, Set design, Jan Versweyveld; translation (After the Rehearsal), Karst Woudstra; transation (Persona), Peter de Kraaij; lighting, Jan Versweyveld; sound, Roeland Fernhout; costume, An D’Huys

Marieke Heebink, Gaite Jansen, Gijs Scholten van Aschat, Lineke Rijxman