Persona, a play based on Ingmar Bergman’s book and 1966 film, is a new production of Habima, Israel’s national theater. The minimalist Swedish film masterpiece, which starred Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, is regarded by many as one of the major works of art of the 20th century. Only five actors appeared on screen, and only Andersson and Ullmann appeared for more than a minute. Elisabet Vogler (played by Ullmann) speaks only 14 words in the entire film.
Now this controversial piece, which received various interpretations, has been staged by renowned German director Amalie Niermayer at Habima. This is a coproduction with the Residenztheater in Munich – the play premiered in Germany in July. The international project was made possible due to financial support by the Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv. German actress Juliane Kohler and Israelis Evgenya Dodina and Alon Neuman participate in the Israeli production.
Prior to the local premiere of the show, Niermayer shares her vision of the piece and her impressions of her Israeli experience in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
“The duo of Kohler and Dodina participated in our German production, and this was one of the reasons for my coming to Tel Aviv,” says the director.
“But, of course, it was not the only reason I opted for this play. There are many interpretations for why the major character stops talking. The most likely is that for her, this is an act of protest against the word. Words in our world have become exploited in many ways, and by refusing to communicate with the world, she protects herself and her right to be what she is and not what the world demands from her.”
Niermayer stresses that the play is more relevant than ever today “when the world has become faster, and you can hardly hide from the modern communication media, such as the Internet or e-mail, which reaches you everywhere.”
The director has already worked with Israeli actors in the past, but this is the first time that she is working with them in such close contact. Niermayer does not see much difference between German and Israeli actors but suggests that there is a difference between the theater traditions of the two countries.
“German theater is a very experimental one by its nature, while its Israel counterpart is quite traditional,” she says.
But those who attend the performance at Habima should expect a refreshing change because what Niermayer creates is not your usual theater. Bergman based his film on a book, which he wrote in nine weeks, in which he described how he was going to shoot his film. For Niermayer, the book and the movie serve as the sources for her play.
“The show is quite different from Bergman’s movie,” she says. “The actors read from the book, they talk about the situation, they create it, and only then do they act. This is a kind of story telling. In Germany, we call this narrative theater. By the way, Bergman himself had a good reason for writing the book because he was in love with the two actresses, and it was important for him to discuss their relationships. But, of course, the play goes far beyond Bergman’s personal problems. I believe that people who live here and now should see the play because it deals with existential human experience.”