Ingmar Bergman is well regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. His 1996 film Persona, about a young nurse caring for an actress who has inexplicably stopped speaking, is arguably his finest work. Melbourne director and Artistic Director of theatre company Fraught Outfit, Adena Jacobs, certainly picked some big shoes to fill when she decided to turn the work into a piece of theatre.

Jacobs’ idea initially came about as a reference during rehearsals for an earlier work Electra, “we had one chorus member and Electra, and we thought god these women are just a bit like those women in Persona”. Thereafter, Jacobs engaged a slow process of thinking about how the work could be adapted for the stage – she was well aware the task she had chosen was a daunting one. Most of the major problems arose in rehearsals after coming to the realisation that she was attached to images from the film, many of which it became apparent were inherently difficult to translate across to the stage. This led Jacobs to move further away from the film and make Persona a piece of theatre in its own right.

At first, some theatre companies were reluctant to take it on; the idea was exciting, but there was the possibility that it could turn into a “spectacular disaster”. Jacobs stood by Persona, however, believing that the content and core scenes of the film were still relevant to audiences by negotiating strong, complex issues around identity, intimacy, motherhood and one’s inherent need to connect with and be seen by other people. She was also fuelled by the creative team who were interested in exploring the idea of translating a piece of film to stage.

Persona premiered last year at Melbourne’s Theatre Works to critical acclaim and sell-out crowds. It cleaned up at the Green Room Awards winning the Best Production, Direction, Female Performance, Lighting Design, and Set and Costume design awards. Now the work is coming to Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre where Jacobs will soon be a resident director. Jacobs is feeling very excited to begin official work with Belvoir next year and to work as part of the strong creative team at the theatre. She is thrilled that Persona will be the first of her works to be shared with a Sydney audience, “it reflects what I do very honestly and it is a work that I’m very proud of and something that reflects the kind of theatre that I am making and I like to make, so it feels like the perfect way to start,” she says.

Having never presented a work in Sydney before Jacobs is not exactly sure how audiences will react but is excited to find out. She is surprised that there has been quite a strong response from a wide range of audiences to the piece so far. “Even though it’s sort of a risky project and it’s confronting material, there is something so human about Bergman’s work and particularly about this work when it is in front of a live audience. It does tend to connect with quite a diverse audience so I feel excited about that, but I am yet to see. I have never put on a work in Sydney so I am not sure.”

BY EMMA MCMANUS

Persona is showing at Belvoir St Theatre from July 24 – August 18.

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