The biggest cheer at the end of this exceptional double bill wasn't for the three actors who had endured an unusually intense evening, but for the tall, handsome, grey-haired form of Ivo van Hove, the Dutchman who might just be the best theatre director working today.
He certainly earned the plaudits for this super-stylish, emotionally wrought production, comprising of two Ingmar Bergman movies – an ongoing obsession and inspiration – reimagined for the stage, first performed in Philadelphia in 2015. Both plays, performed in Dutch with surtitles, view the world through the warped prism of the theatre, using the lie of performance to reflect the greater lie of our daily lives. In After the Rehearsal, an ageing director lazily hits on a young actress backstage. As he reminisces about a past affair with her now-deceased mother, the older woman appears at the door, drunk and furious, raging at the loss of her youthful beauty, and her inability to either act, or to stop acting.
The more subdued of the two pieces, After the Rehearsal still bears many of van Hove's characteristic flourishes; live projections, filmed on-stage; frequent – sometimes slightly jarring – musical interludes. Gijs Scholten, back at the Barbican after van Hove's recent play Obsession, is especially good as the brooding, introspective director.
But the real magic comes after the interval with Persona, a tale of an actress who one day stops speaking, which is one of the most visually brilliant pieces of theatre I've ever seen. It begins in a grey room, where nurses in grey uniform observe the catatonic form of actress Elizabeth lying on a grey gurney. A young nurse is tasked with taking her to the country to convalesce, at which point the walls of the stage crash down to reveal an expanse of water, a huge, backlit screen at the rear casting long, distinctively Bergman-esque shadows across a small island at the front of the stage. It's breathtaking.
Here, van Hove is in his element, happy to allow minutes to slip by without a word being spoken, allowing us to admire the spectacle of these two women paddling in the water to the strains of Moon River. At one point a storm rolls in, sweeping water into the air; later a sunset casts the stage in a deep, burnished orange.
As the pair grow close, the nurse begins to reveal her insecurities to the older actress, claiming her silence makes her the perfect listener. A dark seam slowly grows, of course, and the resulting work is both unmistakeably of the source material and distinctively van Hove's own. It's a masterclass, a surreal potboiler, a slow-burning Freudian nightmare. It was after 11pm when the curtain fell, but I could have stayed all night.