The Yale Repertory Theatre’s recent production of Ingrid Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata,” based on the 1978 film of the same name, is a challenging but rewarding experience. Though intense and somewhat melodramatic, “Autumn Sonata” is a moving insight into the nature of family.
The show, which premiered last night, charts the intricacies of neglect and love and in familial relationships. Set against the backdrop of rural Norway, Charlotte (Candy Buckley), returns to her daughter Eva, (Rebecca Henderson), after seven years of separation. Eva lives with her older husband Viktor (Olek Krupa), and her severely disabled daughter Helena (Merritt Janson), whom
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Charlotte abandoned at an early age. The action consists mainly of dialogue between the women, as they examine issues that until now, Eva has lacked the courage to voice. The drama is tense and unrelenting, giving it a riveting but somewhat melodramatic tenor.
Music plays a central role in the plot as well. The source of Charlotte’s neglect for Eva is her ambition and commitment to her career as a concert pianist. Appropriately, music underpins much of the tension and is critical in understanding the psychology of the main characters. Music is, in many ways, the fifth character, guiding the audience through the story of two women torn apart by selfishness and failure. For example, a central scene in the play occurs halfway through the visit, in which mother and daughter play their version of Chopin’s second Op. 28 Prelude. Though the performances of the pieces were themselves not necessarily believable, the gestures certainly were. Henderson and Buckley were incredibly engaging and brought an apt gravity to a difficult scene.
The musical interludes that accompanied scenes were more musically impressive. Much of the dialogue, video footage and scene changes were supported by Paul Brantley and Merritt Janson’s duets for cello and piano. In fact, the musical themes that joined the drama together were essential in providing a backbone to the emotions felt by the characters. The music not only complimented the play, but also brought it further, to a different realm of theatricality. Though over-emphasised a little, the decision to incorporate new and old music is the key to the success of the production as a whole.
One of the most discombobulating aspects of the production is that it is based on a literal translation of the 1978 film. The language is awkward and unrealistic, and it was hard to empathise with characters whose language was so removed from everyday speech. The stilted language made the play difficult to place in a particular time, making it unnatural and at times unbelievable. But the actors were able to overcome this challenge through their clear and direct portrayal of the emotions of their characters.
Another engaging aspect of the production was the staging and use of multi-media. The layers of the depth in the stage meant that different characters could deliver overlapping monologues in a believable setting, giving a fugal-like quality the play, where characters would pass thoughts around and interact while remaining physically separate from each other. This physical illustration of the drama further clarified the plot and the struggles of Eva and Charlotte.
“Autumn Sonata” is not for the light-hearted theatre-goer. The issues that director Robert Woodruff tackles are serious and depressing. But if you’re in the mood for some Scandinavian existentialism then “Autumn Sonata” should be your first port of call.