In 1966, Ingmar Bergman left his post as Artistic Director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden. Shortly after, I joined the theatre as an assistant to another of the great directors of Swedish theatre: Alf Sjoberg. The succeeding Artistic Director, actor and author Erland Josefsson, was a close friend of Bergman's, who was still electrifying the house at different levels: directing productions, in the corridors, in the canteen gossip and at various meetings in the new director's office.
My first own production in the building, Racine's Andromaque, was with actors who voluntarily worked in their free time. At one of the last of the few rehearsals on the Small Stage, I felt an undefined presence: in the dark, at the far back, sat Bergman. It was a mixed experience, at first scary, then comforting - he cared. Later on, he had a part in giving me my first commission for the Main Stage.
"The film is my mistress, but the theatre is my faithful wife" A quote from Bergman which I think is authentic from witnessing his constant presence in the house. I happened to have my room next to his room - more of an apartment, recently and exclusively restored for him, then scandalized in parts of the press and whisperingly criticized at the theatre, due to its costs. Yes, Bergman was controversial. He was met with a mixture of admiration, respect, but also fear, as well as longing for collaboration. The impact of his personality wherever he popped up, led to a sort of love-hate relationship, often shadowing the real thing: the profession he passionately shared with everyone else, contributing more than most of us.
To serve as his assistant meant a constant thrill. Every day was an adventure. Due to his fear of chaos, he came to rehearsals extremely well prepared. This gave him, paradoxically, the freedom to grab unforeseen moments, as well as the others' initiatives of creativity. Then strictly back on track; pedantic with time, props and silence, broken by his sudden outcries of enthusiasm, then back to eagle-eyed supervision. Conventionally seen, Bergman was not a physical being: skinny limbs, hands without weight, a small bulging belly and slightly spastic gesticulations. Nevertheless, his body was his last and very useful resort! When he couldn't find words (which rarely happened), he sprung up onto the stage, vividly demonstrating a movement or reaction, and with a jerky twist and snake-like precision, nailing its very essence. Then with a boyish giggle admitting how bad an actor he was, followed by a story (probably half true), over earlier failures. This turbulent crisscrossing in processing the rehearsal situation was a life-saving necessity for his imperturbable urge for achieving the wanted result, always within the given time frame.
At the end of the 1960s, in Sweden as all over Europe, the demand for leftish political consciousness became, also in films, a reason for ongoing devaluation of Bergman. At the time I found it unjust, probably coloured by contact with him, meaning that his focus on individual situations was his expression of empathy, demanding truth and engagement in its own right. Today, with the ambition to prepare for participating in "Bergman in Dance", and after viewing all his films and television productions, I find the accusations wrong from an other angle. Films as The Silence (1963), Persona (1966), and The Shame (1968), depict a dark and violent background, not defined in terms of attitude. A political turmoil, not understood by the characters, yet the are influenced by the alien brutality. At that time this focus was considered cowardly, but today it gives those films an unforeseen actuality.
We sometimes had short conversations outside our neighboring rooms. One day, with our hands just about to grab our handles, Bergman stopped, gave me a sidelong glance, an odd smile (I could sense his unusually long canine teeth), and asked, " You don't spy on me, do you?" After my denial, a short pause, a nod, and he dissolved into his chamber.
I didn't spy. But I watched him closely. At all times. Inevitably.
| Mats Ek
The film is my mistress, but the theatre is my faithful wife