Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Tuesday 8th October, 2019
The prism of the title refers, on one level, to a vital component of an old-school movie camera, a piece of glass that splits the light so that colour film photography is possible – something like that, I’m no physicist. The protagonist of writer-director Terry Johnson’s new play is the celebrated cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes, The African Queen…) who certainly knows how it all works, except his prism got broken years ago and the camera that looms in a corner of the set can’t work without it… So, it’s a metaphor for Cardiff’s brain, because Jack has dementia, eating away at his memories, his vocabulary, his ability to recognise faces and places.
Robert Lindsay is magnificent as the cantankerous, irascible Jack, bringing to the fore the humour of the situation – talking to someone with dementia can be very funny; it is also touching, moving and a little scary. Lindsay dominates proceedings, while his wife, son and brand-new carer bend over backwards to keep him happy. Son Mason (Oliver Hembrough) is keen for Jack to write his autobiography so that all his expertise and experience is not lost. Wife Nicola (Tara Fitzgerald) just wants Jack to remember who she is and not conflate her with Katherine Hepburn. Carer Lucy (Victoria Blunt) has her own reasons for proving she is up to the job.
In the second act, the script swerves and suddenly we are on location with The African Queen. Tara Fitzgerald does a marvellous Hepburn, while Hembrough’s Bogart is nicely observed. Later, Victoria Blunt effectively evokes Marilyn Monroe – and it is here we realise, we are looking through the prism of Jack’s dementia, as scenes are repeated with people from his present taking the forms of people from his past. It’s a powerful way of staging the experience of the dementia sufferer – but also those suffering because of a loved one’s dementia. Tara Fitzgerald is heart-breaking when Nicola reveals her husband doesn’t know her anymore.
This is a biographical piece about a particular man and his rarefied career, but it deals with the disease in a universal way. There is a fascinating, nostalgic appeal about the golden age of cinema; I was dismayed to hear talk during the interval that there are people among us who have not seen any of Cardiff’s work! It would be a great shame if such wonderful movies were to disappear from our collective memory.
Funny, fascinating and filmic, this is a hugely enjoyable, edifying piece, with an endearing central performance from Robert Lindsay and stellar support from a talented trio. The production is superbly realised with cinematic elements in Tim Shortall’s design and Ben Ormerod’s lighting. Above all, it shows Terry Johnson back at the top of his game.