Fraulein Sasha Selavie

Rating: 2 out of 5.

As Star Trek’s Borg Queen, Alice Krige was instantly, shockingly unearthly, an stunning visual heart-attack, as unlikely as an 8-foot drag queen twerking on crack! An arguable career highlight, the role propelled Krige into the media stratosphere, paving the way for an acclaimed, deeply nuanced run in Spooks.

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Effortlessly cutting the actorial mustard, her every, hugely conflicted moment a master-class in killer drama, Krige proved an absolute dramatic revelation on screen.

So – pardon our French – WTF happened to Krige’s live acting chops? In the beautifully refurbished Riverside Studios opening production, Persona, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergmans’ masterly and forensic dissection of identity, she’s an inaudible as a de-miked Madonna futilely gyrating on stage.

How come? Was she somehow under the assumption that film-craft projection – where the slightest whisper is captured by multiple, ultra-sensitive boom mics – would be adequate for a packed space with severely raked seats, with all those packed bodies relentlessly soak up the sound?

Poor, poor Alice – how badly mistaken can an actress be? And – to be fair – she’s hardly helped by those steep raked bench seats. Ever cursed the sea of bobbing heads blocking your sight-line at a badly-planned venue? Welcome to a Grade-A theatrical nightmare!

And – unbelievably – the production choices descend from poor to atrocious.

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Bergman’s movie, briefly, is intensely focused on the deepening, psychic symbiosis between Sister Alma, a female nurse, and the inexplicably mute, traumatised actress –Elisabet – she’s caring for in a remote, isolated clinic.

Never easy viewing and exceptionally demanding cinema, Bergman’s script is dense, tortuous, gnomic and elliptical, hardly the stuff of unintentional comedy. So it doesn’t help when – as a result of an inexplicable creative choice – director Paul Schoolman doubles up as an utterly superfluous, onstage narrator to what’s best staged as an intense two-hander. What on earth does adding a dreary, flatly inexpressive voice-over detailing Bergman’s creative process and thoughts on filming Persona add to a show where the principles – Krige and Nobuhle Mngcwengi’s mute actress Elizabet -are crouching invisible and inaudible on a visually obstructed stage?

Which opens another, hugely contentious issue – colour-blind casting, which, normally, should be comprehensively embraced across the board. Here, however, Bergman’s crucial point is that the nurse and actress, initially almost physically identical, fuse even more deeply into an almost symbiotic psyche. So it’s especially jarring – and dramatically incoherent – to have an ice-pale Krige paired with Nobuhle Mngcwengi, a visually contrasting woman of colour, justly acclaimed as a singer/songwriter, but with a puzzlingly insubstantial acting CV.

So, are there any redeeming aspects of this production? Mercifully, yes. Stepping into Riverside’s pristine, aesthetically barren main studio – less artistically inspired than Trump’s bright orange, mad clown make-up – my oestrogen-choked genitals suddenly leapt with faux-orgasmic joy. And the source of my bliss? William Close’s lusciously imposing Earth Harp, all taut, shining copper cables studded with lights and sensors, invitingly strung high above us from the stage to the studio’s rear wall.

The effect? Gorgeously intimidating, like willingly entering a dominatrix’s hi-tech torture chamber, or feeling like human mice at the imminent mercy of a gigantic cheese-wire.

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Ever heard of Laurie Anderson? She’s an avant-garde electronica musician, who pioneered tactile instruments, surfaces sensitive to sensor gloves that instantly release sounds. Hugely bolstered by digital reverb, the resulting music is a physically exhilarating, deep bass throb in our helplessly receptive flesh.

It’s an über-kinky, utterly cutting-edge cyber-fetishism, an ideal prop for an S&M, transhumanist orgy.

And Earth Harp player William Close – all close-cropped, spiky silver hair and killer beard – plays his heart out like a swashbuckling, psychic pirate, unpredictably hi-jacking our sympathies as the score’s sonorous, body-shaking chords demand. If this production’s insistence on low-key whispering and restricted visibility is a misguided attempt at projecting emotional intimacy, William Close’s bravura swagger makes his startling soundscapes anything but futile!

Persona adapted from the Ingmar Bergman movie at the Riverside Studios to February 23rd. 0208-237-1000

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