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Dinner with Bergman

by John Cobley

Friday Apr 29th, 2016

Laurence Olivier, after attending Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 production of Hedda Gabler  at the World Theatre Season at the Aldwych Theatre, invited the Swedish director to produce Ibsen’s play at London’s National Theatre two years later. Surprisingly, because he was well known for refusing to direct outside Sweden, Bergman accepted. Robert Stephens recounts Bergman’s explanation of how he came to accept: “This man Lord Laurence is a warlock.   I didn’t want to do it. We went to lunch and on the way to the Grill I was saying no, and on the way out I was saying yes. He’s a Warlock.” (Knight Errant, p. 106)


No doubt Olivier was persuasive, but he was also helped by being able to offer Bergman some of Britain’s top actors,  Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens and Jeremy Brett.


Arrival in London

These three actors were among the ten people invited by Olivier to join Bergman for dinner on his first evening in London. Bergman nearly missed this dinner. He wrote that he had left Sweden “with considerable inner resistance and full of forebodings.” (The Magic Lantern, p. 235) His instincts were soon confirmed. He arrived at London Airport as scheduled in May of 1970, but the National Theatre representative supposed to meet him was late. A stickler for punctuality, Bergman waited for a while and then decided to fly back home. Fortunately, the rep. caught him just before he reached the ticket counter.


Ingmar Bergman at work.


There was another setback soon after. Bergman had stipulated that he must be booked at the Connaught, which could guarantee him a quiet room and facilities for his dietary issues. Unfortunately he had been booked into a room at the Waldorf that looked on to a busy street. Apparently Bergman threw a fit on entering the room, throwing a chair across the room and demanding to be driven back to the airport. He recalled, “My hotel room was dark and dirty, the traffic noisy outside, shaking the building and rattling the window panes. There was a smell of damp and mould, and the radiator to the right of the door made rumbling noises. Small shiny insects, beautiful but out of place, lived in the bath.” (ML, p. 235)


Olivier, summoned by phone, rushed to the rescue. Always the persuasive charmer, he calmed Bergman and talked him into staying one night in the room by offering to accommodate Bergman thereafter in his own London home. Olivier then left and returned later to take Bergman out for the dinner.


Laurence Olivier 


Two disasters had been avoided. Surely the 8:00 pm dinner would run smoothly. Michael Meyer, whose translation of Hedda Gabler would be used for the upcoming production—and as it would turn out, abused—arrived early with two members of the cast, John Moffatt and Sheila Reid. They, like all the other invitees had been told to come early because of Bergman’s well-known punctuality. Olivier and Bergman arrived at 8:15 to find only three guests waiting. Michael Meyer recalls Bergman wearing an open-necked shirt and looking “very cheerful and pleasant.” (Not Prince Hamlet, p. 212) There was some polite chatter, but at 8:30 there were still only five of the twelve at the table. Olivier apologised for the delay and said he hoped Bergman wasn’t hungry. Bergman was hungry.


There were only two dishes on the menu: lamb and boeuf Bourgignon. Bergman had been eating lamb almost every day while recently on Faro Island, so the beef was the only option for him. However, he could not eat any sauces. The restaurant couldn’t even offer a steak, so Bergman reluctantly went back to lamb.


By the time the food arrived, Maggie Smith and an inebriated Robert Stephens arrived. To add insult to injury the two newcomers completely ignored Bergman and began to talk and joke with Moffatt and Reid. Then suddenly Bergman threw down his knife and fork and announced that the lamb was too fat for him to eat. Olivier offered him some of his beef, and eventually persuaded him to scrape off the sauce and eat. In his memoir,  Bergman, for some reason called the food Javanese.


Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens in 1969


Robert Stephens began to talk to Bergman, who wrote later, “He told me that Strindberg and Ibsen were unplayable dinosaurs, which simply went to prove that bourgeois theatre was on its way out. I asked why the hell he was taking part in Hedda Gabler, and he said that there were 5,000 unemployed actors and actresses in London.” (ML, p. 235) Olivier tried to smooth the waters by saying that Stephens was a revolutionary while drunk and shouldn’t be taken seriously.


An hour late, Jeremy Brett arrived with the excuse that he had witnessed an accident and had to stay on the scene as a witness. He was the last to arrive; four chairs remained empty throughout the evening.


John Moffatt, in an effort to bring Bergman back into the conversation, asked about Hedda Gabler. “It’s a boring play, but one can make something of it,” Bergman began. This must have got the attention of all the actors present. One of the guests asked him why he chosen to do the play in Stockholm. Bergman answered, “ I am head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre and I have a  powerful actress, Miss Gertrud Fridh. I have to find a part for her….  So I go into the library and look at all those plays on the shelves and I say, ‘There must be some play here for such an actress.’ Then I take down this old play, Hedda Gabler. (Wrinkles his nose in contempt.) By Ibsen. (Makes a gesture as of emptying a bucket down the lavatory.)” (Meyer, p. 213)


Bergman did not seem to realize how much this explanation was demoralizing the actors who were going to perform the play. He continued, “I think, can there be anything in this old play for people today? Then I read it, and you know, there is much in it that works. Of course, there is much in it that is boring, but that we hop over.” (Meyer, p. 213) As it turned out, Bergman cut (hopped over) 15 of the 100 pages of the play.


At 9:45, Olivier started to get restless, looking regularly at his watch. Everyone felt uncomfortable, thinking that the dinner should continue. At ten Olivier told Bergman that he lived with his family in Brighton and would like to get home to them. “Although there is an 11:28 train, I would much rather get the 10:27 so as not to be late. Would you think me rude if I run?” (Meyer, p. 214) He didn’t wait for a reply.


After Olivier’s departure, the mood brightened. Bergman appeared more relaxed without Olivier beside him. According to Meyer, he “gossiped away amusingly and slightly maliciously.” (p. 214) Bergman was quite cheerful when he left for his one night at the Waldorf.


Michael Meyer 

The Production

Despite the poor start to Bergman’s visit, Hedda Gabler was a huge success. Robert Stephens, who played Loevborg, later said that this was the best production he had ever been in. According to Michael Coveney, both John Moffatt and Maggie Smith agreed years later that “they had not encountered an experience like it since, nor a director.” Moffatt said: “What that man could do in a few seconds, the way he could transform a performance with one little remark. I could go on all day about it.” (Maggie Smith, A Bright Particular Star, p. 136)


A few seconds indeed. Bergman needed to work fast because he rehearsed with the cast for only a few days before returning to Sweden to work on a film project. So while he was in England the rehearsals were necessarily “concentrated.” They were held from 11:00 to 3:00 every day, much to the dismay of the British actors who were not used to rehearsing in the daytime. Olivier attended these rehearsals and couldn’t help injecting some ideas. This infuriated Bergman, who eventually banned Olivier from all rehearsals.


Stephens was surprised by Bergman: “You’d think Bergman was a very humourless, grey kind of person, whereas the truth is exactly the opposite. He was the most enormous fun, very witty.” (p. 107)


When Bergman went back to Sweden after a week of rehearsals, he left a mass of notes for the cast and asked Olivier not to involve himself at all with the cast. To keep Olivier away, he told the actors to rehearse behind locked doors for four hours a day. Bergman was able to return a few days before the opening to polish the production, but he went back to Sweden immediately after the first night. He hated London. Still, he must have been pleased to learn later that the production was a success with both the theatregoers and the critics.

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