“It’s the confusion that terrifies me”
Through a Glass Darkly is a bit of a coup for the Almeida Theatre, a world premiere of this Ingmar Bergman story and directed by long-term friend of the Almeida, Michael Attenborough. It tells of a family, a couple Karin and Martin accompanied by her father and brother, holidaying on a bleak Swedish island once associated with family happiness, now revisited at the behest of Karin. Recently released from an asylum after some sort of psychiatric breakdown, she is trying to recapture the feelings of contentment she remembers from the past, but her father, brother and husband for their own various reasons seem unable to help her realise her ambition and so she decides to take control of her own destiny.
This is the only one of Bergman’s works that he permitted to be adapted for the stage and I’m pretty sure I read that Andrew Upton was doing the adaptation when this was first announced, but Jenny Worton is credited here. Not knowing the film, I can’t comment on how good an adaptation it is; structurally, it takes place over 24 hours through a series of scenes. There was something a bit too mechanical about the transitions though, not enough of a feel of the links between the scenes for my liking and so it all felt a bit disconnected, a series of tableaux rather than a well-integrated play.
And to be honest, I found it all a bit disappointing. It will come as no surprise that it is rather depressing, few stories about mental illness are, especially when written by Swedes, but it just doesn’t provide for an engaging evening. Ripping through events in 93 minutes means that whilst it is over and done with by 9(ish), there is precious little time to get into it, to let the characters breathe and to let the audience get accustomed to it. The issues of faith it raised, the trials of dealing with people with mental illness, the incestuous feelings, it was too suffused with misery and being asked to care about these people as we just popped into their lives for the day was a step too far for me. The pacing is rather languorous despite the short running time and so when the (rather abrupt) ending comes, it felt a little bit like it had only just really gotten started.
That said, Karin is a gift of a role for an actress. Full of quicksilver changes, flashes of a whole range of moods in the blink of an eye, and Ruth Wilson does extremely well. It is hard to believe this is just her third ever professional stage role (her second, in A Streetcar Named Desire, garnered her an Oliver award and more importantly a fosterIAN award nomination too!), she has such a natural grace on the stage, the words flow from her easily and it barely feels like she is acting on stage but just being. It is a truly remarkable performance which just makes it more of a shame I wasn’t a fan of the rest of the play.
Dimitri Leonidas makes an assured stage debut as the tormented Max, struggling to deal with his own emotions, never mind those of his sister and there are some lovely moments between him and Wilson, a real sense of a bond between the two. He does seem a little old to be playing a boarding-school age kid but that’s not his fault. Justin Salinger and Ian McElhinney have a much harder job though with fairly bland characters and little to work with but even in their star moment, the conversation in the boat, it just felt interminably boring.
Tom Scutt’s design evokes the bleak grey simplicity of the Swedish island well, there’s use of a revolve again here, but it is Colin Grenfell’s lighting that is the star creatively. In particular in highlighting Karin’s isolation, both physically and emotionally, it is a very effectively lit piece of work, although the shadows did threaten to overwhelm in a couple of the earlier scenes. The way in which the backdrop is lit and relit to look almost completely different is quite remarkable. Dan Jones’ score is beautifully composed, with moody, swelling music which was probably a little too epic for the efforts on stage.
Perhaps it is timing (in terms of subject, a mental illness sufferer and the effect they have on their loved ones is markedly similar to that of Polar Bears), perhaps it was the fact I’d had a long day at work, perhaps it was any one of a number of things, but I left the Almeida feeling rather disappointed. Despite excellent work from Ruth Wilson, this glass feels half empty rather than half full.