The Theatreguide.London Review
Hampstead Theatre Autumn 2017
Terry Johnson's new play is at heart a theatrical poem, driven less by its minimal plot than by its ruminations and feelings on topics ranging from identity and memory through the nature of light.
That it hangs together, makes us care about its subjects and creates a reality out of what seem at first disjointed elements is not only a tribute to Johnson both as playwright and director and to his cast, but also a resonant metaphor for another of the plays' themes, the art of cinema.
Jack Cardiff was a multi-award-winning cinematographer (The Red Shoes, The African Queen, etc) and director (Sons And Lovers, etc), celebrated for his masterly use of light and colour to create a film's look and to show actors and especially actresses in literally their best light.
Prism imagines him in retirement as encroaching Alzheimer's begins to shatter his life in ways both lightly comic – his inventiveness in working his way around words that won't come – and deeply moving – his frequent lapses into memories of the past, recasting the people around him as actors and colleagues of earlier days.
The title refers literally to the device in early Technicolor cameras that allowed the creation of colour films and figuratively to the way Alzheimer's splits reality into overlapping images of past and present.
What passes for plot has Cardiff's son trying to hold his father in the present long enough to write his memoirs and hiring a carer-cum-secretary to keep him functioning while Cardiff's brain would much rather be on location with The African Queen or in Hollywood photographing Marilyn Monroe.
The play follows Cardiff's stream of consciousness, letting us appreciate the attractions of the past while recognising the costs of retreat from the present.
Cardiff's memories expose regrets and frustrations while, particularly movingly, in what first seem comic moments we discover the pain of his wife at realising she has been erased from his memory, forever absorbed into romanticised images of Katherine Hepburn.
Theatrically, writer-director Johnson juggles these many levels at first by having the present-day characters constantly trying to keep up with who and where they are in Cardiff's eyes at any given moment, and later by imaginatively taking us into Cardiff's own vision.
The second act opens with us evidently back in Africa making The African Queen, with the same actors from the 'real life' scenes now being Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall, and we begin to see why Cardiff keeps going back there in his mind.
Earlier there was a seemingly meaningless scene between Cardiff and his carer, but then he plays the exact same scene, word-for-word, with Monroe, and we retroactively realise the emotional resonances the earlier version must have had for him.
As the story line inches forward, everyone onstage gets a little bit of what they would wish for. None of the play's explorations into memory, identity or the nature of light are completed, but they have all become real, and we are led toward our own thoughts and feelings about these things.
Robert Lindsay, who seems incapable of not being brilliant, be it in drama, musical or TV sitcom, holds the stage with seemingly effortless authority while taking us deep into Cardiff's experience and making it really matter to us.
Claire Skinner is touchingly fragile and admirably strong as the wife coping with non-existence, and brittly witty and surprisingly sexy as the Hepburn of his dreams, and Barnaby Kay and Rebecca Night skilfully and generously serve the play in their multiple roles.
There are, to be sure, deeper plays and greater plays. But Prism takes you fully into its world and into the emotional lives of its characters. It makes you think and makes you feel. What more could you reasonably want?
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