(Chris Wiegand’s artciel appeared in the Guardian, 2/23;  Lena Olin and Erland Josephson with the Hedda Gabler sofa in After the Rehearsal. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy.)

Ingmar Bergman’s movie unpacks, like no other, the intimate emotional processes of staging and seeing a play

In the opening scene of Fanny and Alexander, a boy is alone in an empty house, playing with a toy theatre lit by candles. The 1982 film is an appealing portrait of the artist as a young man and, two years later, Ingmar Bergman presented a similar image in his next film, After the Rehearsal. The theatre director Henrik (portrayed by Erland Josephson) remembers creating his own makeshift stage as a child with a box and some bricks. It is a telling contrast to the ornate model playhouse that belongs to the young Alexander, played by Bertil Guve, who appears briefly in the later film, too, in a cutaway as the 12-year-old Henrik. Fanny and Alexander is a sweeping family drama told with an ensemble of actors; After the Rehearsal is less than half its length, with just a trio of characters. If the former is the crowd-pleasing main-house production, the latter is an experiment in that theatre’s studio space.

In the films’ opening scenes, both the young Alexander and the ageing Henrik are half-dreaming, heads rested on their arms. Fanny and Alexander, which revolves around a theatrical business and alludes to Hamlet, ends with the characters preparing a new production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play.

In After the Rehearsal, Henrik is preparing for the same drama, which Bergman himself directed several times on stage and for a 1963 TV film. Henrik wakes from his sleep when one of his actors, the twentysomething Anna (Lena Olin), pays a visit. The pair discuss the play and their relationship: many years earlier Henrik had an affair with Anna’s mother, Rakel (Ingrid Thulin). Rakel proceeds to enter the scene, too, and Henrik’s conversations with each woman, observed by the other, drift between past, present and imagined worlds in much the same manner as Strindberg’s play, with which it also shares similar imagery.

For Strindberg, objects become charged with meaning. As a seashell contains the sounds of the ocean, so the old woman’s shawl in A Dream Play has absorbed decades of sorrow, both from her own life and from others. This is how Henrik sees the props and furniture that are used in his productions.

He and Anna are sitting on the sofa that was previously seen in a revival of Hedda Gabler. The armchair, he tells her, was used in Strindberg’s The Father. That table? He cast it in Tartuffe. These objects are in effect their own rep company and bring their own connections with other plays, just as the “angels, demons and ghosts” of those productions still hover around the stage. They are all old acquaintances, which is how Henrik feels about the characters in A Dream Play. He still remembers seeing Strindberg’s drama for the first time as a child; he is now mounting his fifth production of the play and there’ll probably be a sixth or seventh, he suggests.

Each of these shows leaves a sort of spiritual energy on the stage, says Henrik, so that every performance at the theatre has the resonance of past productions. For Anna, it is intimidating to be acting in the footsteps of others who have played the same role. But this sense of theatre history is part of the pleasure for audiences – even if it’s just the romantic nostalgia of imagining the bygone productions whose fading posters hang in the theatre bar.

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