In Ingmar Bergman’s own words, his 1976 film Face to Face was a cinematic attempt to force his way “into the secrets beyond the walls of reality”.
Bergman may have succeeded in forcing his way through those walls but the ceiling of the film arguably fell down as a result. (He later described the fruits of his labour as “ill-digested”.)
In adapting Bergman’s screenplay for the stage for the Sydney Theatre Company, Andrew Upton and Simon Stone (who also directs) are not only liberating Face to Face from a cobwebbed corner of the vaults of cinematic history. They’re attempting to realise a vision Bergman was unable to realise himself.
Face to Face is the story of one woman’s rapid psychological breakdown. Jenny (Kerry Fox) is filling in at a hospital psychiatric clinic while her husband and 14-year-old daughter are away for the summer. At first, Jenny seems normal, happy: but Fox provides the telltale signs that she is anything but. Whatever discomfort Jenny can’t deflect, she takes in with a frigid lack of feeling. Literally a lack of feeling: even as she is groped by a trying patient, or suffers a violent encounter in a deserted street, she just about seems to shut off her sensory receptors. Something or other, however, attracts her to Tomas (an infinitely sensitive Mitchell Butel), a doctor she meets at a party who unwittingly unlocks the door to what happens next: Jenny, alone in her bedroom, takes up a bottle of water and a fistful of Nembutal, and tries to take her own life.
Face to Face begins to reveal itself to be something of a cunningly constructed murder-mystery in which Jenny plays all parts: victim, culprit and, eventually, detective. Details planted in this first half (an old photograph, a throwaway conversation) turn out to be of profound importance.
The adaptation is straightforward up until this point: dialogue is colloquialised and funny, scenes are compressed and conflated. But from the moment of Jenny’s attempted suicide, this Face to Face veers sharply away from the original. What follows is a remarkable work of reverse-engineering and reimagining.
The comatic dream sequences that dominate the second half of Bergman’s film were harrowing and heavy with symbolic imagery: red cloaks, burning coffins, a reappearing hollow-eyed old crone. (Rogert Ebert used the term “fireworks”. Bergman later admitted it was “a landscape of cliches”.)
Messrs Upton and Stone have dreamt up an alternative that, first of all, showcases the combined wizardry of their design team (the real stars of the production). As the Nembutal kicks in, an expanding square of light descends over Jenny and swallows her up. She emerges, white-smocked, in another bed, another realm, indeed another theatrical genre. She is now among, well, “the secrets beyond the walls of reality”, marooned in lighting/set designer Nick Schlieper’s pristine and plexiglass-sealed aquarium. The dream space is a container of Jenny’s exiled thoughts and fears, each embodied by persons from her waking life – there’s her chain-smoking colleague, the actor from the party, the suited couple from last week’s symphony concert – passing through like ghosts. Schlieper delineates Jenny’s slippage between conscious and unconscious states with handsome blue light, and mournful strains of a piece of music she heard nights before (courtesy of composer Stefan Gregory) swim about her.
As recently as in his work in Death of a Salesman, Stone has shown his skill and perception at revealing the secret machinery at work inside the mind. His exploration of Jenny’s psyche is similarly revelatory; his first attempt to render dreams on stage – ingenious.
But as fantastic as it is to see external manifestations of Jenny’s demons paraded before her, it can’t compete with the visceral impact of seeing an actress of Kerry Fox’s abilities wrestle with her internal sorrows. In this latter half of the production it’s the hospital room scenes, anchored in the land of the living, where we see the tender interactions between Jenny and Tomas, that bear the most emotional weight. Here too do we finally get to see the excellence of Fox and Butell’s performances.
Meditating as it does on ‘feelings’, Face to Face continually prompts the conscientious audience member to consider their own feelings as they watch the show. One might, as I know others did, empathise with Jenny at the moment she finally confronts the accumulation of her pain and neuroses.
Or one might, as I did, find himself empathising with the comfortably numb Jenny, who speaks of perceiving and recognising greatness and beauty but is unable to feel an emotional connection.
The cavernous Sydney Theatre, to which Stone is a newcomer, wasn’t necessarily the problem. Stone obviously can’t replicate Bergman’s portrait-like framing of his actors’ faces, but he uses his gigantic canvas (7m x 12m) to similarly powerful effect. A scene wherein Jenny, seated in place in a row at a concert hall, is bathed in and beckoned by the light, is surely the sublime theatrical equivalent of a movie close-up if ever there was one. Having characters scuttle across the stage on swivel chairs or boot around a netball, too, are good efforts to energise dead space (though they strike one as precisely that: efforts to energise dead space).
The fundamental issue with Face to Face is that it is delivered almost as if it were a lengthy diagnosis of its protagonist-patient, sifting through the details of her life in much the way a psychiatrist might systematically thumb through earmarked pages in a case file. As fascinating as it is as a collision of psychology and philosophy, it means that Face to Face sits closer to clinical examination than character journey.
Somewhat losing his way during the making of the original film, Bergman wrote in his workbook: “There is no doubt that there exists a huge shout trying to find its voice.” That this voice is being heard loud and clear some 36 years later in the Sydney Theatre is a tremendous achievement on the part of those involved. It’s a voice that won’t speak to everyone – but it’s worth listening to very closely for the chance that it does.
Time Out interview with director Simon Stone
Watch the Face to Face trailer below and see much more on the Sydney Theatre Company YouTube page