Stories of any sort, plays included, run into problems when they’re biographical. How faithful will they be to the person whose life is portrayed? What’s the best way to bring alive the drama in their life? And how does it connect to anyone who didn’t know that person?
Prism, written and directed by Terry Johnson, is an incendiary portrait of cinematographer Jack Cardiff – known for his work on classic films such as Black Narcissus and The African Queen, and equally celebrated for photos of film legends including Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe. The play is about all of that – what makes it powerful is how it uses one man’s life to conjure a captivating story about art, love, loss, and time.
Robert Lindsay in the central performance is compelling, a man whose life changed when he came to understand light through paintings, and used lighting to paint films that often wouldn’t be memorable without his input. Jack is charismatic, but his mind is unanchored, so he projects an amazing past of decades, legends, and icons, into a garage at the twilight of his life.
With Jack in that garage are his wife Nicola (Tara Fitzgerald), carer Lucy (Victoria Blunt), and son Mason (Oliver Hembrough). And then there are his memories, sometimes brought to life in still and moving projections as Jack’s mind wanders – Mason wants to pin down his dad’s past into a memoir, which is part of why has Lucy been employed. Jack resists, but his mind is no longer an ally: he mistakes those around him for people in his past, and that theme is taken further to powerful effect as his memory unspools.
This is theatre of rare power and insight. The script is witty and captivating, and having set up the scenario with elegance Johnson and the actors bring to life heartbreaking character dynamics that we’ve all been tangled in, one way and another.
Prism is at Nottingham's Theatre Royal until Saturday October 26 2019.