The Theatreguide.London Review
St James Theatre Autumn 2013
The stage version of Ingmar Bergman's 1973 TV miniseries is, as the title suggests, a string of episodes tracing the course of a marriage over a decade. It is also an intensely emotional, possibly overpowering display of the passions, positive and negative, that lie just beneath the surface of even the most calm-appearing relationships.
We are introduced to fortyish Johan and Marianne, through the openly clumsy device of an interview, as a golden couple – happy, successful, loving – so that it is obvious from the first of the play's fifteen scenes that they have nowhere to go but down.
The first half of the evening follows the slow and almost imperceptible decay of the opening scene's perfection.
Watching other marriages fall apart shakes their confidence in their own, while the prospect of an unanticipated pregnancy exposes not only the fragility of the balance they've achieved but also their inability to communicate honestly.
She has the not-unique female experience of realising in midlife that she has always shaped herself to meet men's expectations rather than finding her own identity. He has his own midlife crisis, discovering that he feels trapped in the familiar and announcing just before the interval that he is going off with a younger woman.
The second half of the evening puts us and them through the emotional roller coaster of will they or won't they get back together, before reaching an unexpected resolution.
It might strike you that there is little that is special in that story, and you may recognise someone you know or, more disturbingly, yourself. And that is surely intentional, Bergman making these characters archetypal almost to the point of cliché (You'll have to fight the impulse to groan when Johan declares that he's fallen in love with a twenty-three-year-old) because his whole point is that this painful adventure potentially lies in waiting for anyone.
Joanna Murray-Smith's adaptation is somewhat warmer and more sympathetic to both characters than Bergman's clinical objectivity was, opening the door for director Trevor Nunn and his actors to let out all the stops and display all the emotional confusion, pain, anger and grief that accompany the end of a marriage.
Olivia Williams' Marianne, both as the woman and as the one most unprepared for the break-up, goes through the broadest range of passions, the actress repeatedly baring the character's soul while always making us aware that there is a part of her embarrassed by her inability to be cooler.
It is part of the author's definition of Johan that he is more emotionally repressed – one vaguely sees the ghost of Prince Charles' 'Whatever love is' – and Mark Bazeley sensitively shows us the man having feelings he's not equipped to express or even to fully recognise, so we are more likely to pity than to censor.
The adapter's sympathy toward both characters, and the director's and actors' courageous and truthful exploration of emotions keep us from seeing heroes or villains, just two victims of their own ageing, their own self-consciousness and their own inevitably imperfect grasp of what love is.
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