Through a Glass Darkly review: Bergman’s tale in an unspecific Ireland

Trapped in a holiday created by Ingmar Bergman that’s given ghostly life on stage, can Beth Cooke’s Karin escape?

Through a Glass Darkly

Project Arts Centre, Dublin


"Holidays! They're supposed to be relaxing but in fact they're just lumps of time without any distractions." So says Karin, with an eerie calm, during an island retreat with all the men in her life – a distant father, a cosseting husband, a precocious teenage brother – adding, only slightly less cheerily, "All this time to look straight ahead and stare into the abyss." Karin's predicament is even more ominous: her holiday has been created by Ingmar Bergman, adapted from the 1962 Swedish film in which a confined woman succumbs to mental illness.

Karin's world is largely without colour. Staged by Corn Exchange, in an adaptation by Jenny Worton further pruned by director Annie Ryan, it suggests a muted existence. The dominant greys and flickering blues of Sarah Bacon's set and costumes have the evocative patterns of a stormy coast; the dialogue gives similar signs of trouble brewing. Karin's fretting doctor husband (Peter Gaynor) discusses her prospects with her guilt-ridden author father (Peter Gowen), while her adolescent brother Manus (Colin Campbell) is both fascinated and disturbed by her intimate overtures. It puts Beth Cooke's marginalised Karin in an unusual position: always the focus of the play but never quite its centre.

Cooke gives a fine, sinuous performance of a woman’s suffocated potential. Where Gowen’s absent David and Campbell’s guileless Manus each have access to artistic expression – a stifled novelist and a would-be playwright – Karin has none. Studied by her father, infantilised by Gaynor’s frustrated Martin and viewed cagily by her brother, her only agency is either to snoop – her father’s diary, her husband’s medical bag, her brother’s erotica – or to become mad, a kind of rebellion.

Ryan brings this story to an unspecific Ireland, but Bergman’s conflation of sexuality, spirituality and sanity seems to belong to another time, when the politics of “hysteria” could either be viewed as a form of female protest or male control.

Against a glacial progression, the expanse of the stage can feel like a permanent long shot. The more arresting moments come with Karin’s explorations, most striking against the otherworldly glow of Sinéad Wallace’s lights as Cooke approaches the border between realities, slipping between them. This may be Karin’s abyss, but just as the sliding frames of Bacon’s set offer shifting perspectives, Ryan allows us more than one view. Is this her final disintegration, or her emancipation?

Until December 5th