**** (4 stars)
“homage to a genius of cinema “
The curtain rises on something that looks like a film sound stage, whose sliding door’s upward passage is constantly interrupted by someone who won’t allow it simply to open but keeps commenting on the ratio of length to width of the slowly-increasing aperture beneath it. The legs we see beneath the door turn out to belong to an irascible older gentleman, an impatient younger man and a young woman who stands awkwardly in the background, taking no part in the argument.
The shutter finally slides upwards completely, allowing the three to enter the room, which turns out to be a garage: a convolutedly cyclic conversation ensues between the two men and tries to include the young woman – This is the garage: if it’s a garage, where’s the car? Outside the pub – mine’s a scotch and soda – no, she’s not the barmaid, and this isn’t the pub, it’s the garage: well, if it’s a garage, where’s the car? It’s a somewhat illogical conversation which alerts us to the fact that the older gentleman is suffering from dementia. The man who turns out to be his son tries constantly to bring his father into the here and now by demonstrating the absurdity of many of his remarks: the father is constantly sliding between alternate realities and making responses that could be utterly illogical, or completely sane wisecracks.
And so we enter the multi-layered world of Jack Cardiff, cinematographer and director, known as “the man who makes women look beautiful”, who knew better than almost anyone else how to use the Technicolor process to make films look gorgeous. The prism of the title is the one that sits inside the Technicolor camera and splits the light entering it into three separate colours, recorded on three separate strips of film and reunited after processing to produce a richness of colour previously unknown to cinematography.
Jack much of his time living in his memories – particularly of Katherine Hepburn and the filming of African Queen: his son, Mason, is trying desperately, and almost aggressively, to keep his father in the present to finish the autobiography he has begun. Jack’s wife Nicola is heartbroken that Jack no longer recognises her, but uncomplainingly takes Hepburn’s part in the conversations he continually holds with her while Lucy, who has been engaged as a care assistant for Jack, tries to put into practice the ‘correct’ ways of dealing with people who are dementing that she has learned in her all-too-brief training.
Robert Lindsay gives a magnificent performance as the man who was obsessed with light, the different ways in which it illuminates everything it touches, and the gorgeous emotional atmospheres it can create in films. Tara Fitzgerald is desolate and yet stoically pragmatic as she watches the man she loves slowly disintegrate – remembering the wonderful women he worked with in the past but failing to see the reality of the one who’s living with him now. I couldn’t quite decide whether Oliver Hembrough’s Mason was solely motivated by a desire to get his father’s autobiography completed and made into a film: was he desperately trying to complete the project as a way to come out from his father’s shadow and make a name for himself? Victoria Blunt’s Lucy was a curious mixture, too: what was the point of making her tragic backstory part of the play, and would Jack’s wife and son really engage a carer with so little knowledge and experience? Yes, she had compelling reasons to make a success of the job, but it felt almost as though her character had been invented to tick a number of boxes needed to make the plot work and to provide ‘dumb blonde’ responses for the audience to laugh at.
What is real? The lines blurred between Jack’s ‘present’ and the past he increasingly lived in. At one point we were transported to the African jungle, where Jack watched Bogie and Bacall and tried to persuade Kate to leave Spencer and accept his love instead; at another, a scene which had played out in the first act was repeated, but with different characters – Marilyn instead of Lucy, Arthur Miller replacing Mason, and, as ever, Katherine – which makes the motivation for the first scene instantly clear: Jack is living in his own world, and the other three become the players in it.
How true is it all? Terry Johnson says “I never intended to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. He’s combined an engaging narrative and homage to a genius of cinema with a moving portrayal of the effects of dementia not only on the sufferer but also on all the people around them to produce a piece which raised a lot of laughs and was greeted with appreciative applause both, I think, for the actors, and for the man who inspired the play – Jack Cardiff, cinematographer extraordinaire.
PRISM written and directed by Terry Johnson, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, run ends 2nd November, then UK tour continues. for tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/prism