The Playgoer: Bergman the Stage Director

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bergman the Stage Director

Bergman's Ghost Sonata

Charles McNulty takes on the mission of adding some theatrical sensibility to the Ingmar Bergman eulogies. And in the LA Times, no less. Right on, Charlie, preach it to the film colony!

It's a perfect summation of Bergman's stage contributions. The famous "Hamlet" from the late 80s, was a highpoint for all who saw it. (Including at BAM in 1988.) I myself have only seen it on video*, but certain moments I remember as if it were live before me now. Here's McNulty's helpful summation:
My introduction to Bergman's stage work was his production of "Hamlet," which was presented in 1988 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and remains the most searing encounter with Shakespeare's masterpiece that I've had to date. It wasn't so much the central performance of Peter Stormare, a Hamlet dressed in leather and sulking like a rock star whose tour has just been canceled, but the way in which heightened theatrical choices liberated the entire cast into a purer realm of aesthetic being.

The fluid audacity of the staging, which refused to be hemmed in by a limiting concept, lent a modern edge to the metaphoric boldness of Shakespeare's poetry. On an encumbered set, Bergman conjured living tableaux that threw into relief the political and spiritual nightmares engulfing not just a peculiarly meditative prince but an entire murderous, power-drunk society.

Village Voice critic Gordon Rogoff described Bergman's "Hamlet" as the "most eloquent reading of Shakespeare since Brook's 'Lear'...
(Yes, that's the same Peter Stormare who went onto "Fargo" and now less auspicious movies and commercials. He was also Bergman's Jean to Lena Olin's Miss Julie. I wonder if he ever thinks of what he left behind in Sweeden for "Nacho Libre"...)

McNulty may be right that Bergman couldn't lay claim to founding his own "school" or body of theatrical theory as a director. But one quality that made him important was how he continued the lineage he inherited of the Scandinavian theatre. I know this sounds knee-jerk, but to see a Bergman production of an Ibsen or Strindberg play was maybe not "authoritative" or "definitive" (who would want that) but it sure felt a few levels deeper than the average American production. Because he owned that material so confidently (it's so influential on his movies, after all--something I'm sure film critics are overlooking this week) he could afford to be quite "unfaithful" at times, yet tangibly true to the deep core of the text. As McNulty says:
No one was better than Bergman at negotiating the physical space in which a play unfolds. Never a slave to stage directions, he would place the forest attic in Ibsen's "The Wild Duck" front and center rather than tucked away upstairs and would allow Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I to appear simultaneously throughout Schiller's "Maria Stuart," even though they only meet once in the play.
So rather than treating his masters as museum pieces, he fully inhabited their plays anew. These productions felt to me not at all like what they "originally" were, but perhaps something like what Ibsen or Strindberg would be doing today, bad boys that they were. I also think only Bergman today had a direct connection--a dark Scandinavian backchannel, if you will--to the wackier dream logic of those writers' later plays. (His "Ghost Sonata" was like David Lynch in frock coats.) As well as sharing an almost sadistic addiction to inner pain. (He rewrote "Ghosts" --at age 85, mind you--with loads of obscenities and drew out the final death scene, as McNulty beautifully describes it, to "near blinding Oedipal apotheosis.")

His repertoire of moods included also a lighter folk sensibility that could open up and make sing even the densest of material--like the insurmountable "Peer Gynt," which he turned into some mixture of rustic ribaldry and magical realism. Then there was his utterly humble approach to that most magical of Shakespeare romances, The Winter's Tale, framed as a private performance at a 19th century Sweedish family banquet (a la Fanny and Alexander), where the "statue" of Hermione (an invitation for theatrical tricks) was played unadorned for what it was: a woman in the flesh, brought out on a chaise lounge.

I was lucky to see so many Bergman touring productions at BAM in the 90s. But I still kick myself for the ones I missed. "Doll's House" (his now-famous stripped down "Nora" adaptation) "Miss Julie," and even "Long Day's Journey into Night"--bringing O'Neill back to his own Scandinavian inspirations.

For yet another Bergman theatrical appraisal see Feingold's 2003 review of Ghosts, in which he brings together the total oeuvre.

*The "Hamlet" video is available for viewing at the Lincoln Center Library TOFT collection, as are many of the other BAM productions, I believe. (You probably still will have to get BAM permission to view, as I did.)

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