Prism – Richmond Theatre, London

Writer/Director: Terry Johnson

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

“Submit your life to any decent script editor and they’d reject it on structure alone,” Robert Lindsay’s Jack Cardiff tells us in Terry Johnson’s biographical play about the acclaimed Hollywood cinematographer. For Jack, now retired and succumbing to dementia, life is relived from scene to disjoint scene, experienced out of order – as if shooting a film, not watching one.

The strain Cardiff’s deteriorating health puts on his family is one of the themes Johnson focuses on in this touring version of his 2017 Hampstead Theatre production. In the Buckinghamshire garage they have converted into a memory palace – adorned with some of Cardiff’s famed pictures of women from the golden era of Hollywood (Monroe, Loren, Hepburns Katherine and Audrey) and Cardiff’s reproductions of Old Master paintings that inspired his love of the use of light in his art – Lindsey is in incandescent form as he flits between the present and the past.

Tara Fitzgerald bears much of the show’s emotional heft as Nicola, the wife Cardiff no longer remembers, continually mistaking her for Katherine Hepburn, with whom he worked in Africa while shooting John Huston’s The African Queen. There is a sense that she desperately needs “her” Jack back, but will take a calmer husband lost in his memories over the agitated man who is briefly, lucidly aware of his condition.

Nicola’s loving patience is in stark contrast to the approach Johnson takes for Cardiff’s son Mason (Oliver Hembrough), portrayed as a mercenary figure who, having never come out from under his father’s shadow, is now keen to exploit Cardiff Senior’s reputation, encouraging his father to finish an autobiography that he hopes will get optioned into a screenplay.

Mason is considerably less well drawn than any of the other characters, especially that of Victoria Blunt’s Lucy, whom Mason employs as Jack’s carer and typist. Blunt and Lindsay spark off each other immediately, allowing one to immediately believe that Cardiff may mistake his carer for Marilyn Monroe. A highlight of the play’s playing with time sees a photo session with Lucy played both from her point of view – Cardiff mistaking his carer for Marilyn and his son for the actress’s then husband Arthur Miller – and then, later from his, with Blunt and Hembrough performing the same scene, word for word, made up as Monroe and Miller.

Even then, that is far from the most impressive piece of visual trickery. Tim Shortall’s set design makes imaginative use of projections, allowing the wall portraits to change subtly, or not so subtly, according to where Jack’s head is at at any time. And as Jack is allowed to dwell in his memories, particularly of his time in Africa, Johnson and Shortall present the audience with a coup de théâtre that propels us, too, from Denham to the Congo.

It is in this sequence that Fitzgerald excels, giving an impression of “Katie” Hepburn that is partially an interpretation of the classic actress, but with remnants of Nicola still running through her, as if Cardiff’s memories cannot truly subsume reality.

The prism of the play’s title was used in a Panavision camera to record colour images by splitting light into three components. The result was a colour palette which was more vivid than had previously been seen.

Similarly, by fragmenting Cardiff’s life and choosing multiple techniques to explore the life and career of a man who helped to shape the modern film industry, Terry Johnson’s Prism gives us a life in the sort of vivid focus that we rarely see.

Continues until 19 October 2019 

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A vivid portrait

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