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Review: After the Rehearsal/Persona (Barbican)

Ivo van Hove's company Toneelgroep complete its residency at the Barbican with these Ingmar Bergman adaptations

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Ivo van Hove's Dutch company Toneelgroep end its residency at the Barbican with this double bill of plays adapted from films by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Stylish, stylised, intense and surreal, they are mini love letters to the filmmaker and at varying points very beautiful. But goodness, why they have been lumped together in one night - in an evening that starts at 7.45pm and ends at 11pm - I couldn't fathom.

It takes a lot of concentration, let's say, to really be with both pieces by the end. Each is a riff on similar themes - focusing on mental health, love, sex, marriage and theatre in different ways. But their pace - especially in the final piece Persona - is mostly fairly slow.

After the Rehearsal is set behind the scenes of a play, being directed by Hendrik Vogler. After a rehearsal the director is interrupted by Anna, the lead in his piece, who flirts with him, prompting him to remember his relationship with her late, troubled mother. In Persona actress Elisabeth Vogler becomes catatonic during a performance and is assigned a young nurse called Alma to tend to her. They end up together on a deserted island as Elisabeth silently convalesces, while the nurse begins to enjoy being in the company of someone who listens to her. Over the course of the piece Alma confesses to past events - erotic sexual encounters and things she feels ashamed of doing.

It's all fairly oblique, but the intensity of vision and van Hove's ability to conjure striking visual drama from deeply intimate experiences manages to draw you through each piece. This is most true in Persona, especially in one staggering moment where van Hove and his designer Jan Versweyveld move the action from a hospital to an island and the walls of the set literally crash to the floor. After, the back of the theatre is exposed and we see three huge wind fans, which come into their own during a storm scene where water and wind is blown everywhere. It is the sort of intensely beautiful statement that we have come to expect from a van Hove production.

All the performances are strong, with Gijs Scholten van Aschat very good as the enigmatic Hendrik weaving his way through the paths of two women of the same family. Marieke Heebink is also superb in After the Rehearsal as the unhappy, sex-driven, prickly Rachel. In Persona it is Gaite Jansen who transfixes during her long monologues about sexual awakening.

It's a full evening, all entirely in Dutch with English surtitles, and there absolutely are treats to take away from it, but I couldn't help wonder how much adapting the films for the stage actually adds to their existence. And in an evening that's over three hours long, that's a fairly big thing to wonder.

After the Rehearsal/Persona run at the Barbican Theatre until 30 September.