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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 328-330
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The Ghost Sonata
The Ghost Sonata. By August Strindberg. Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten), Stockholm. 21 November 2000.
Ingmar Bergman declared his intention to retire from directing six years ago, but the rarefied production of The Bacchae intended to mark that occasion may have set him looking for a more decisive or appealing farewell. The more likely possibility is there will be no farewell, as such. He has said on many occasions, most recently in the New Yorker, that he cannot live if he cannot create. Whatever the case, he has been remarkably productive in the last three years, directing P.O. Enqvist's Bildmakarna, Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata, and Schiller's Maria Stuart, all at Dramaten in Stockholm, in addition to directing for radio and television and writing several film scripts. At eighty, Bergman continues to refine his lexicon of scenic techniques, and, at least in the last decade, each new production has offered a purer rendering of his art.
His fourth mounting of Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata was a clear case in point. It broke no new ground, but stood as a compendium of his favorite theatrical tools: stark but seamless shifts of rhythm, a metatheatrical frame, tense and highly distilled visual narration, and a frightening, irrepressible eroticism. Compared to other recent Bergman productions (The Winter's Tale, The Misanthrope, and the aforementioned Bacchae) Bergman's deployment of these tools was especially satisfying in Strindberg's notoriously difficult chamber play. Bergman handled Strindberg's unexplained symbolic interactions deftly and presented them in surprising but apparently ordained order, for our consumption. That is not to say this was an easy piece to watch, but at no time did the spectator feel less than welcome, even privileged, to be among the guests.
Only afterward did I realize that Bergman was faithful to the sonata form from beginning to end. The statement of the first scene was engaging and surprisingly humorous, with Jan Malmsjö's Hummel and Jonas Malmsjö's Student grappling congenially to accept the strange reality of the house. The development of the second scene proceeded excruciatingly in near stillness, broken sporadically by the explosive and bitter revelations characterizing Strindbergian journeys where the horrible unconscious becomes conscious. The restatement of the third scene was a desperate and ferocious display of penetration--both sexual and spiritual--leaving no doubt that Hummel, the Student, and the Young Lady (played with astonishing physical presence and control by Elin Klinga) had been playing in deadly earnest the whole time. The coda, somewhat more prominent in this production than Strindberg's script suggests, came in the form of a haunting and gentle dance by the same actor (Virpi Pahkinen) who played the mysterious Milkmaid in the opening scene.
Bergman's hand was not heavy, but was unmistakable from the first dimming of the lights, when several actors filed solemnly in and sat in the fourth row of the house. The Student crawled from among these figures up a ramp onto an almost empty stage, in the middle of which was a small green carpet demarcating the action of the present moment throughout the performance. As the scene developed, the players appeared and disappeared swiftly and quietly through black curtains [End Page 328] [Begin Page 330] surrounding the playing space. What physical elements there were--a bucket of human excrement removed from the house and poured into the street by a maid, for example--appeared and disappeared just as suddenly, serving mainly to punctuate the movement from visual phrase to visual phrase. For the most part, the visual freight of the production was carried by Anna Bergman's lush costumes, that looked as if they were fetched from the formal scenes of Fanny and Alexander. By far the most gripping scene was the third, in which the Student and the Young Lady engaged in a bloody tangle of souls and bodies, with an apparently shared commitment to both the necessary process and its exhausted, quasi-tragic outcome.
The signal achievement of Bergman's interpretation was a balance between the unseen forces...