If one thing is clear from Ingmar Bergman’s gloomy Oscar-winning 1961 film Through a Glass Darkly, adapted for the stage by Jenny Worton, and directed by Michael Attenborough, it’s a warning about where to book your summer holidays. Chances of fun and relaxation are minimal in a remote cottage on a bleak island with just your immediate family for company.
Bergman, of course, liked Faro so much when he made the film there that he built a house and stayed forever. The house was on the site of the garden outpost where troubled young Max (Minus in the film) performs his strange, symbolic play with his sister Karin.
Surprisingly, this “performance” is replaced in the play with a mere reference to the script, a missed opportunity to theatricalise the incipient incest of Karin and Max. Otherwise, the sombre quadrille of guilt, madness and recrimination follows Bergman closely without the exceptional brilliance of the acting and the oppressive grey beauty of the landscape.
Ruth Wilson, however, gives a fine central performance as the unstable, bipolar Karin, enslaved by the voices in the wallpaper of her attic retreat, standing carelessly naked, facing upstage, or careering sensuously around in her slip and nightgown, repelling the sexual attentions of her own husband, the careworn doctor Martin (an emaciated Justin Salinger).
The three people – husband, father, brother – who love Karin most can’t cope with her. The film must have seemed shocking in 1961 but, boy, does this seem over-familiar, almost clichaic, now. Also, the rhythmic pulse of the film is unsuited to the theatre. Strangely, you feel you’re watching something in the wrong medium.
Martin has syringes and sedatives at the ready. Paternal David (a rather stolid Ian McElhinney) is wrapped up in his writing and lectures, ready to exploit Karin’s story as he did that of her deceased mother. And the student Max (Dimitri Leonidas seems far too old for a hormonally confused 17-year-old) lacks love and encouragement.
Tom Scutt’s design is a clever arrangement of dismal shades and shadows, while Dan Jones’ sound replaces Bergman’s Bach cello suite with some intense flourishes in which Wilson, radiant with bizarre religiosity, submits to her demons, puckering that extraordinary rhomboid mouth of hers into an instrument of inner darkness. In only her third stage appearance (after Philistines at the National and as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar), Wilson is a major new star, not yet hitched to the right wagon.