Writer: Terry Johnson
Director: Terry Johnson
Reviewer: Tom Ralphs
You may not have heard of Jack Cardiff, but you’ve probably seen some of his work. As a cinematographer and director, he worked on many classic, and some not so-classic, movies over a career that spanned six decades. Contrary to the promotional blurb that says Prism is ‘the astonishing true story of the man who made Hollywood’s greatest divas beautiful’ Terry Johnson’s play is actually a fictional work set at the end of Cardiff’s life. Cardiff’s story is combined with an exploration of ageing, identity, memory, motivations and life itself, that is for more wide reaching and rewarding than a true story could be.
The play opens with the ageing Cardiff being shown into the garage flat where his son, Mason, hopes he will work on the autobiography that will capture Hollywood’s golden age and provide a lasting record of Cardiff’s role in it. The problems are that Cardiff is reluctant to do this, being more drawn to trying to find the pub down the road, and is suffering from Alzheimer’s. This is not necessarily affecting his recall of his earlier years but is preventing him realising they were several decades ago rather than the world he is living in now.
Into the mix comes Lucy, who has been hired by Mason to make sure he gets the job finished and also to act as a care worker, nurse, and housekeeper even though she doesn’t seem particularly competent or trained in any of these things, Nicola, Cardiff’s second wife and the person he is having the most trouble recognising.
The arrival of Nicola really kicks the play into life as it moves away from establishing Cardiff’s character and the task that lies ahead of him and onto the emotional conflicts and harsh realities that come with coping with Alzheimer’s either as patient, partner, relative or carer.
As Carter finds it hard to distinguish between the garage and the African jungle used to film John Huston’s The African Queen, Lucy works with him, not contradicting his belief that he is somewhere else. Nicola wants to bring him back to the present, partly because in the past she’s Katherine Hepburn, who may or may not have been the love of his life. Mason has his feet in both camps, wanting his father to recall the past with clarity so that he can access and monetise his memories before they disappear completely.
The script and Tim Shortall’s set design switch between the garage, the jungle and a Hollywood movie set, reflecting where Cardiff thinks he is and where he actually is. While Carter always remains Carter, Mason, Nicola and Lucy become Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller and Hepburn, all seen through Carter’s fading memory.
As writer and director, Johnson sees himself more as a dramatist than a playwright, and this is a play where the words and the visuals have evolved in partnership to create a production that disproves conventional wisdom that playwrights shouldn’t direct their own work. Carter sees life through a cinematographer and directors lens noting that life is not lived in the way you would film it, making it easy to see why his story would appeal to Johnson, and how it would provide the perfect vehicle for the bigger themes he explores in the play.
Robert Lindsay gives a career defining performance as Carter, switching between arrogance and vulnerability, confidence and confusion and always keeping the audience on his side as the essence of Carter lives on in a mind that’s succumbing to his illness.
Tara Fitzgerald as Nicola, also gives a moving and nuanced performance as she switches from personal frustrations to sadness at the tragedy of what is happening to her husband. Victoria Blunt as Lucy is the foil to Cardiff’s musings in the past and present, but her character has her own story and Blunt brings this to life making her more than just a supporting role. Mason is perhaps the least developed of the characters, more motivated by money than his father’s health, but Oliver Hembrough captures that motivation and does add a depth to it conveying a sense that he genuinely wants his dad’s story to survive, even if his dad is not keen to repeat it.
This is a multi-layered play that works on all of them. It’s biography, reflection and commentary, supported and enhanced by a script, direction, design and cast that make it so much more than just the story of a film maker.
Runs until 2 November 2019 then touring | Image: Manuel Harlan