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After the Rehearsal: Bergman's brilliant spotlight on making and watching theatre

The Guardian - Tue Feb 23 06:00

In the opening scene of Fanny and Alexander, a boy is alone in an empty house, playing with a toy theatre lit by candles. The 1982 film is an appealing portrait of the artist as a young man and, two years later, Ingmar Bergman presented a similar image in his next film, After the Rehearsal. The theatre director Henrik (portrayed by Erland Josephson) remembers creating his own makeshift stage as a child with a box and some bricks. It is a telling contrast to the ornate model playhouse that belongs to the young Alexander, played by Bertil Guve, who appears briefly in the later film, too, in a cutaway as the 12-year-old Henrik. Fanny and Alexander is a sweeping family drama told with an ensemble of actors; After the Rehearsal is less than half its length, with just a trio of characters. If the former is the crowd-pleasing main-house production, the latter is an experiment in that theatre’s studio space.

In the films’ opening scenes, both the young Alexander and the ageing Henrik are half-dreaming, heads rested on their arms. Fanny and Alexander, which revolves around a theatrical business and alludes to Hamlet, ends with the characters preparing a new production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play.

In After the Rehearsal, Henrik is preparing for the same drama, which Bergman himself directed several times on stage and for a 1963 TV film. Henrik wakes from his sleep when one of his actors, the twentysomething Anna (Lena Olin), pays a visit. The pair discuss the play and their relationship: many years earlier Henrik had an affair with Anna’s mother, Rakel (Ingrid Thulin). Rakel proceeds to enter the scene, too, and Henrik’s conversations with each woman, observed by the other, drift between past, present and imagined worlds in much the same manner as Strindberg’s play, with which it also shares similar imagery.

Bertil Guve as Alexander in Fanny and Alexander.
Bertil Guve as Alexander in Fanny and Alexander. Photograph: Embassy/Everett/Rex Features

For Strindberg, objects become charged with meaning. As a seashell contains the sounds of the ocean, so the old woman’s shawl in A Dream Play has absorbed decades of sorrow, both from her own life and from others. This is how Henrik sees the props and furniture that are used in his productions.

He and Anna are sitting on the sofa that was previously seen in a revival of Hedda Gabler. The armchair, he tells her, was used in Strindberg’s The Father. That table? He cast it in Tartuffe. These objects are in effect their own rep company and bring their own connections with other plays, just as the “angels, demons and ghosts” of those productions still hover around the stage. They are all old acquaintances, which is how Henrik feels about the characters in A Dream Play. He still remembers seeing Strindberg’s drama for the first time as a child; he is now mounting his fifth production of the play and there’ll probably be a sixth or seventh, he suggests.

Each of these shows leaves a sort of spiritual energy on the stage, says Henrik, so that every performance at the theatre has the resonance of past productions. For Anna, it is intimidating to be acting in the footsteps of others who have played the same role. But this sense of theatre history is part of the pleasure for audiences – even if it’s just the romantic nostalgia of imagining the bygone productions whose fading posters hang in the theatre bar.

I haven’t seen another film that quite sums up the sense of a relationship that develops through theatremaking and theatregoing. Bergman conveys the accumulative effect of the theatre habit – how a series of brief encounters (one night for the audience, a few weeks per show for the actors) build into a bigger picture, and how one production teaches you a bit more about that play, its creatives, that theatre and – if you’re lucky – yourself, too.

Erland Josephson with Ingrid Thulin in After the Rehearsal.
Erland Josephson with Ingrid Thulin in After the Rehearsal. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

After the Rehearsal was made for TV and the action unfolds on the stage as if in a play, often framed as if by a proscenium arch. (Ivo van Hove directed a theatrical adaptation of it in London in 2017.) Bergman gets into the nitty-gritty of how a director and actors work together, what each expects of the other – or others – and the contract between them. Ever the auteur, Henrik says that he “violates” Strindberg (before mocking his own boasts in a lacerating voiceover) while Anna suggests that it is the actors he injures, observing that the paths of many directors are lined with crushed performers. She cries at night after rehearsals because of his cruelty, she says. Is Henrik gaslighting her when he tells her to stop acting in her private life? Who is manipulating whom, and to what end?

Ingmar Bergman in 2000.
Ingmar Bergman in 2000. Photograph: Jonte Wentzell/AP

Henrik sees his role as a director as being about calmly “administrating, distributing and organising”. Theatre is shown as a profession but one that requires vulnerability and which draws actors into sharing innermost emotions. The personal and professional entwine in complicated ways, bringing to mind the dancer in A Dream Play who cannot perform since she was left by her partner. If actors call upon their own intimate experiences to create characters then theatre, in turn, gives them a framework for interpreting daily life. Rakel describes Henrik’s behaviour towards her as if she is reading stage directions. All three characters have an ear for phoney dialogue, raising questions if any of their lines ring hollow.

“Life consists of doing things again,” says the Advocate in A Dream Play. So do rehearsals – which share the word for repetition in Swedish and other languages. But each repetition can never quite be the same and what Bergman captures is the fresh search for truth, created from artifice. As the film drifts in and out of this trio’s past, present and future relationships, it captures an emotional truth in the here and now. And this is what you feel in the film’s most affecting sequence when Anna delivers lines from the play in a brief performance that is supremely moving by itself, without any connection to the dramas of Strindberg or Bergman.