Through a Glass Darkly @ Almeida Theatre, London

directed by
Michael Attenborough
The films of Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman are not for the faint-hearted. His rigorous examination of the human condition makes great demands on the audience but the resulting revelations are well worth the effort for illuminating the darker elements of our psyche.

His Oscar-winning 1961 film Through a Glass Darkly is a characteristically bleak yet piercingly truthful account of human relationships, here adapted for the stage by Jenny Worton. The drama revolves around a dysfunctional family on holiday on a remote island, where attempts to come together to heal deep wounds and resolve long-term conflicts go horribly wrong, bringing their personal and collective issues to a crisis.
Karin, recently released from a mental hospital, has been warned that not only might she relapse into a schizophrenic state of religious delusion, in which she hears voices and sees hallucinations, but that this may well become chronic. Her well-known novelist father David saw her now dead mother take a similar path, but his absent, detached prioritizing of his work over family makes matters worse, while her teenage brother Max is self-absorbed in adolescent angst and her doctor husband Martin is well-meaning but stiflingly solicitous.

Worton has delivered an admirably lucid and cogent version of Bergmans Strindbergian story, which works well in the theatre. The searching spirituality of the original may not be so powerful here, but it is a bit easier to warm to the characters who seem more sympathetic. The big themes of religious faith, mental illness, artistic creativity and family divisions are all explored in a series of stripped-down scenes.

What comes across strongly in Michael Attenboroughs tightly focused, interval-less ninety-minute production is that the three men hovering around the loving but fragile Karin may well be more part of her problem than her solution. Tied to this is the suggestion that aspects of her mental breakdown may actually be a breakthrough, as she straddles the two dimensions of the physical and spiritual world, allowing her insights into their lives which they blinded to.

Tom Scutts subdued, battleship-grey design evokes the distant horizon where sea and sky meet, with the back wall literally closing in to reinforce the feeling of claustrophobic intensity. Dan Joness moody sound and music also help to create an atmosphere of eerie expectancy.

As Karin, Ruth Wilson (in only her third stage performance) shows a luminous expressiveness that is rapidly marking her out as one of the outstanding actresses of her generation: she is the emotional focal point of the drama, troubled and confused but capable of moments of joyful epiphany.

Ian McElhinneys David, who confesses to a sliver of ice in his heart, uses his familys psychological problems as raw material for his books, but is agonizingly aware of his own shortcomings. Dimitri Leonidas may seem slightly older than Maxs 16 years but he conveys well his incestuous sexual insecurities and hesitant hopes of becoming a writer. And Justin Salinger gives an excellent performance as Martin, full of loving compassion towards his wife but irritatingly treating her too much like a patient.

You may feel like taking a big lungful of fresh air after emerging from the Almeida, but watching Through a Glass Darkly is an undeniably compelling experience.

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