Written & Directed by Terry Johnson
Based on the life of Jack Cardiff
Entire artistry in its own right, the conduction of light by Jack Cardiff would define a method of cinematography which pervades the artform to this day. The Red Shoes, The African Queen and The Black Rose, there is scarcely a shred of celluloid which at one point hasn’t had some kind of inspiration from this man. Terry Johnson’s Prism allows the star of stage and screen Robert Lindsay to capture a man who would dedicate his career to capturing the right angle of Hollywood’s finest, and how in his later life Alzheimer’s would cast his recollection further and further back into these sepia-tinted days of showbiz.
Shackling ourselves to a chain of memories born of anxieties, love, regret and experience, we place a tremendous deal of what defines the ‘self’ into the composite of how we evaluate our lives. What then, when the cruellest form of affliction, dementia, early on-set or age-related, loosens these tethers and slowly ebbs away our most recent memories, placing us firmly in a comforting, if distant past? This is Johnson’s intention with Prism, to offer a glimpse into the closing scenes of Cardiff’s life, just before the credits begin to roll.
In essence, a biographical (if artistic) production places itself into the hands of its principal performer. In Robert Lindsay, there is not a qualm to locate. His charm is silky, yes, but his emotional control over the condition is as approachable as it is painful in depiction. Ironically, though the metaphor wouldn’t be lost on Cardiff – there is a spectrum of emotion, a Prism if you will allow. In his closing moments, the tiniest nuance of detail leads to a crushing realisation – something which, for Cardiff, is worse than losing his memory, and once we realise that Lindsay has been laying the groundwork for this through the second half, it’s aching to comprehend.
Unafraid of the industries nature, Terry Johnston’s writing refrains from treating Cardiff as an untouchable treasure, indeed taking liberties which would perhaps be appropriate for the role. Jokes of the infamous casting couch, while certainly a distasteful reference, would tragically be common practice. The humour, well-written, also slips in a few gags which roll eyes for their age, but again, this would be correct for Cardiff’s character. Where Johnston’s writing balances this humour, and it takes a while to do so, is in the demonstration of dementia’s influence beyond the individual sufferer. Something Johnston takes partial credit for, but Fitzgerald rightfully claims a deal more.
Nicola or Katie (Katharine Hepburn) as Cardiff fails to remember which, at first is an identifiable role, a wife standing beside her partner, who openly displays the frustrations and loneliness of dealing with a loved one suffering from the condition. The thought of being a blank face, to someone you have shared a life with, is disheartening to even imagine, yet somehow Fitzgerald communicates a tremendous deal while saying little. Taking on the role of her predecessor, the apparent love of Cardiff’s life, is a metamorphosis, capturing Hepburn’s diction, as well as her timeless class.
Echoes of the past dance in the background, references of the days Cardiff regresses towards as the condition worsens. Prism is arguably for the cinephiles more so than the theatrical crowd, and while it is indeed possible for fans of one to respect the other, there is such depth in the knowledge of filmmaking – from the jabs at aspect ratio, to references of actors inability or habits, the production has a definitive screen quality to its DNA.
In an expedition of Cardiff’s history, the location of Prism takes unique transitions to expand the horizons beyond simplistic storytelling. In the closing of act one, Tim Shortall’s design feels excessive, but for the second its purpose is evident. With cinema at its heart, Ian William Galloway’s video design is where the set excels. Six portraits of cinema’s defining performers (minus Bette Davis…) enhance the mise en scène with small quirks, movements and tricks. If possible, tear your eyes away from Lindsay’s performance, and you may spot a theatrical ‘Easter egg’ of cinematic inspiration.
While Lindsay beams out in technicolour, Victoria Blunt and Oliver Hembrough find themselves squarely in the tones of Kinemacolor, far from feeble, but without the range Lindsay and Fitzgerald offer. Principally this lies within the narrative, Johnson’s writing paints Blunts character on the edges of sitcom territory, with a shoehorning of drama in the second act for us to feel sympathy, trouble being it loses out to our emotional investment in Lindsay. Blunt’s brief spell as Monroe, while a caricature, is dripping with delivery, decadent and quite stirring in all the right ways.
Filmstrip offers a glimpse of immortality for the chosen few, though it will never stand the test of our true marker – time. Nailing a performance which one will seek to capture for an age, Lindsay pays Cardiff in kind, reminding us of his immeasurable talents, eventually succumbing to a callous condition. As these timeless classics of film fade ever more into obscurity, they are a reminder that all good things must end; paintings will tarnish, whiskey dries and the light which Cardiff so exquisitely framed fades. Prism offers a range of artistic celebration, and this is a love letter from the stage to the big screen.
Runs at The King’s Theatre until Saturday November 2nd. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/prism
Photo Credit – Manuel Harlan Video Credit – Capital Theatres