February 03, 2008

Scenes from a Marriage, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Want to tie the knot? Don’t.

2 stars

You could say that the Swedes are rather gloomy about marriage. What with Strindberg’s notoriously fraught depictions of matrimony in his plays and, later, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage which depicts a happily wedded couple evolving into warring contenders, these Swedish writers certainly don’t leave you galloping to the altar. But Joanna Murray-Smith’s newly commissioned version of Scenes from a Marriage which Bergman originally wrote as a television series, goes beyond the cynical to a gratuitously painful and downright crass look at marriage and human nature.

Breakfast, the message is at the end, is about the only enjoyable element of being together, and sex simply a weapon of jealousy and deceit. Trevor Nunn directs this debauched adaptation at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, after 45 years’ absence. Iain Glen, one of Britain’s current most celebrated actors, plays Johan, an academic and the elusive, bored, eventually deceptive husband of Marianne, a family lawyer, played by Imogen Stubbs (one of our most celebrated actresses). Partly because they are clearly so well rehearsed, Glen and Stubbs, however, have an irritating vanity in their performances. There is a preoccupation with gesture, with constant silly voices, with irritating affluent middle-class mannerisms that overshadow any truth in their characters. It’s self-conscious, hyper, ridiculously stylised and – what I sometimes see as a symptom of Drama Schoolitis – self-applauding in its craft.

The scenes of marital tension delight in their own acidity as Peter and Katrina (Dominic Jephcott and Tilly Blackwood), dining with Johan and Marianne, drunkenly hurl caustic insults across the room. “Bitch!” “Fxxxwit!” Employing variations on this discordant tune for two acts neither shocks nor amuses; it bores and exposes Murray-Smith’s cackhandedness as an adaptor of Bergman. I’m all for the bleak when it’s well-written (Pinter’s Betrayal and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot are perfect examples of this), but bleak for the sake of it is tedious and wearing. And if you’re allergic to the word “Fxxx”, then you’ll come out of the theatre with a serious rash.

The piece is one act too long, the low-point being a scene of drunken fighting between Marianne and Johan where she is brutally kicked in the stomach and given a nosebleed whilst they roll around the floor, groaning. By this point, their characters have dissolved into gross caricatures of themselves and you wish they’d just divorce and end the whole sordid business. But their truce of “we should have started fighting earlier” only shows their sadistic determination to persist.

What I enjoyed most about this production was admiring the beautiful space that is the Belgrade’s new B2 theatre and which will hopefully be home to many exciting new productions. But with unnecessary, clichéd and insistent cynicism, combined with actors so preoccupied with acting, this, I’m afraid, isn’t one of them.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Bill

    I very much agree!

    I was excited about seeing the result of Nunn directing Stubbs and Glen back at the beautifully refurbished Belgrade, but came away feeling cheated and bludgeoned.

    I found a complete absence of plausible or developed inner lives to the two main characters pretty disappointing and the whole thing frankly fell apart at the seems in the second act. Maybe the point was to display the self-satisfied and condescending egocentricity of Bergman’s own marital failure through the motivationally empty surface of Johan’s and Marianne’s meanderings; but that seems a pretty facile goal for a night at the theatre to me.

    03 Feb 2008, 17:30

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