Persona – Fraught Outfit at Belvoir St Theatre

Persona is widely considered to be one of the best films of all time. A 1966 Ingmar Bergman masterpiece, it is highly visual and extremely tense. Fraught Outfit’s stage production, currently playing at Belvoir St, defies the odds of adaptation to the stage and presents one a compelling, psychological mind-trap of a play.

Karen Sibbing. Picture by Ellis Parrinder.
Karen Sibbing. Picture by Ellis Parrinder.

Director Adena Jacobs has created a tightly-drawn world that suggests the film’s visual motif of contrast and overlapping faces and creates its own stylised language that demands your full attention. Cinematic, Swedish design by Dayna Morrissey, and lighting by Danny Pettingill, draws audience focus squarely centre-stage; there is no escape from this play.

It’s breathtaking.

Elisabeth Vogler (Meredith Penman) is an actress who has lost her voice, and no one can figure out why. At a loss to care for her, it’s arranged by the head nurse for young nurse Alma (Karen Sibbing) to take Elisabeth to a holiday home by the sea to recuperate. Alma, finding herself with a mute captive audience, begins to talk. And talk. As she talks, she starts to share her most intensely private secrets.

That’s where it all shifts and changes; where the nurse is being nursed. Where the silence and compassion of Elisabeth as listener, priest hearing confession, starts to seem not quite so benevolent. One small moment from Elisabeth – one small action – is enough to dig itself into Alma’s psyche. Somehow it’s not so serene at all.

Penman’s almost impenetrable grace and Sibbing’s unselfconsciousness are the jewels of this production. These actresses give uncomprising accessibility in their performances; even when their emotional purging – silent or otherwise – becomes difficult to watch, it’s impossible to stop yourself.

Violent, touching, confronting, stark and purposeful, Persona squeezes like a vise around the hearts of the audience, so much so that even if you’re familiar with the film, this still feels new and unbearably unknown. There is no escape from these portraits of deeply human, deeply scarred people, who we know but don’t know, who we learn and unlearn in a heartbeat. It’s impossible to shake the creeping horror-genre feeling – something is about to happen. Something is about to crack. Something is very, very unsafe.

Meredith Penman. Picture by Ellis Parrinder.
Meredith Penman. Picture by Ellis Parrinder.

Of course it is, though. Our emotional selves are always unsafe, precarious, whether we’ve retreated into ourselves, into an oasis without words, or if we’ve found an outlet for all the words to which no one else has ever cared to listen.

It’s such a deeply personal horror. Alma and Elisabeth are broken and their different selves shown – to each other, to themselves, to Elisabeth’s husband (a brief, but welcome appearance by Daniel Schlusser) are harshly honest in their polarity. The film is famous for its deconstruction of the thoughts and memories that can overtake a person; the play doesn’t shy away from this once.

But for all its ‘ugly’ human honesty, it’s stunning. A sort of austere beauty that you’re aware of the whole time. As you watch the play, you know you’re seeing something that will linger. This play stays with you all night. And the next day. And you’ll think of it a week later like you would an affecting film – in freeze frame shots: a hat abandoned on the beach. A woman frozen in laughter. A woman naked, despairing. A line or two, hanging on nothing, hooking into everything.

Fraught Outfit have achieved great, almost unfathomable success with Persona. A remarkable production.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

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