Through a glass darkly

Andrew Billen is perplexed by a perverse rereading of Ingmar Bergman.

Some time in the 1950s, probably around the time The Seventh Seal won a prize at Cannes, Ingmar Bergman told the critic Ossia Trilling that he made movies only to fund his theatre work. Cinema was his mistress, theatre his wife. Realising that such talk was unlikely to help Bergman's movie career, Trilling left this out of his interview, an omission for which the director was profoundly grateful. Nevertheless, a year after Through a Glass Darkly won an Oscar in 1962, Bergman became head of Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theatre. But although Through a Glass Darkly was the only one of his films he allowed to be staged, Bergman never himself directed it for the theatre.

He was a wise old bird. The film, with its cast of four, is practically a Strindberg chamber play; so it is surprising how much is lost in Michael Attenborough's production. Certainly, I missed the bleakly beautiful Swedish island where the patriarch, David, a mediocre novelist, has a holiday home, to which he invites his teenage son, his mentally ill elder daughter and her doctor husband. But, to be honest, I missed the subtitles, too. "I am looking into the abyss" is a cliché, but when you hear it in Swedish, you blame the translator.

Not that Bergman actually wrote "I am looking into the abyss". It would be unfair to say the Almeida's in-house adaptor, Jenny Worton, has a duff ear for Swedish - who doesn't? - but she cuts up, edits and rewrites the screenplay so that its ambiguities are streamlined and it subtleties trampled over. Changing the adolescent son's name from Minus to Max is emblematic of her approach to a text that heaven knows is grand enough in its themes of family v individual, art v life, spirituality v madness.

As it happens, Minus/Max suffers especially from this production's broad strokes. In both versions, the lad is caught by his sister Karin reading porn, but in the film it is a Swedish equivalent of Parade; here it is hardcore, stiff-cock stuff. Later the pair's incestuous moment - an accident you have to infer in the film - becomes a full-blown wrestling match. The boy is even robbed of the last word granted him in the film. "Father talked to me" is a wonderful touch because it means we do not have to take David's portentous speech about love too seriously: that he has a conversation with his estranged son at all is what is important. No wonder that Dimitri Leonidas in the part fails to make much of an impact.

Worst of all, the allegorical play Minus/Max writes to impress and embarrass his father is not performed at the Almeida. Instead, Max tells him it is about a writer who murders his muse only to discover she is really his wife in disguise. The Phantom Art, as enacted by the cast in the film, is quite different: it is about an artist who uses his art as an escape from his family responsibilities, but it also stars Karin as a medieval princess who must descend into a land of darkness (or insanity).

Its omission is the clue to Worton's perverse reading of the play. She sees Bergman's story not as an examination of family-induced madness, but as a description of a painful but worthwhile religious experience. The audience seems expected to cheer Karin on into schizophrenia, as if the strange world she perceives behind the wallpaper is Narnia. Indeed, the programme includes the preface from R D Laing's The Divided Self, the 1960 book which suggests that madness may in fact be "genuine freedom".

In order to skew Bergman's text in this direction, Worton has to omit one of his best-known lines, in which Karin, terrified, sees God and discovers he is a "stony-faced spider" who wants to penetrate her. This revamp places considerable strain on the actress playing Karin, and it is to the enormous credit of Ruth Wilson that at several points she pulls quite clear of the rest of the cast and takes us into her private rapture. But the consequence is that, although Ian McElhinney produces a compelling performance as the selfish, self-lacerating David, we so much take Karin's side against her rationalist husband Martin that Justin Salinger fails to find anything much in the role for us to like. Is Through a Glass Darkly, the movie, a great work of art? Next to this crazy play it is.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals