Sunday, 3 November 2013
Bergman on stage
Referring not to mighty Ingmar's own towering productions, of which I count myself lucky to have seen two - more on that further down - but to a triumphant version of the eminently stageworthy Scenes from a Marriage newly transferred from Coventry's Belgrade Theatre to London's fine newish venue of the St James Theatre. It seems odd to place Olivia Williams and Mark Bazeley , two actors I'd not encountered in the flesh before, above/above Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in the unsurpassable film/TV series (I have the Criterion - Region 2 - set which luxuriously offers both long and short versions).
Yet our Brits made as persuasive an alternative couple as one could hope to see, not emulating the Norwegian and the Swede but creating a slightly different dynamic.
Trevor Nunn can be conventional these days - maybe he always was - but steered the perfect course here. I imagine certain scenes resonated with his own three marriages (we used to encounter a fractious Trev and Imogen with noisy kids atop shopping trolley in the Hammersmith Marks and Spencer's). At any rate it all felt plausibly real and universal. Peripheral details were updated in Joanna Murray-Smith's superlative adaptation; crafty little films between scenes showed what was going on in between - we knew we were in for trouble when Johan dressed younger than his age, took up basketball and skateboarding; the strains, stresses and shocks rang true.
The only question is how much gets taken on board by each couple in the audience, straight or gay, and how deeply they recognise themselves in it. We both felt there were certain man-woman differences which aren't replicated in same sex relationships, but the honesty game and Bergman's disconcerting habit of making people say what they think they mean at the time which may not hold good on another occasion stood out in bold, sometimes frightening relief.
The dynamic here is that you start off - or rather we did - disliking bumptious, slightly smug university lecturer Johan and rather feeling for Marianne's awkwardness. But later she comes across as killer queen bee when the power starts to slip from Johan's grasp, and I felt more for the pain of Bazeley's Johan than for Josephson's never quite likeable male.
The anguish of the central crisis, taken like much else from a dark night in Bergman's own life and mirrored in the Liv-directed film Faithless, has you sympathising with both; the unexpectedly violent later climax - again, I won't say more - felt a bit stylised, perhaps - at close quarters fake slaps and kicks are bound to look a bit odd - but the quiet coda was as moving as it is in the film. Among the fast-transformed supporting cast, Melanie Jessop is as good as the leads, playing a client of lawyer Marianne who's never loved her husband and is so objectively bleak that she makes us - and Marianne - laugh nervously.
Do go see the production; there's less than a week left. I'm curious, too, to see how Toeneelgroep Amsterdam handle it at the Barbican later this month: three couples are promised to three different sets of audience members, starting mid flow and going backwards or forwards depending on where you are. It seems to me that realism is best, that you really need to follow one pair only and that in their development over years lies the fascination of the acting, but we'll see.
It's an appropriate time to rekindle memories of the first Bergman production I saw on the London stage, Hamlet at the Lyttleton, since as you've probably heard the National Theatre is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. It serves only to remind me that they've not done enough continental European drama, at least not recently, and that the stagings were rarely cutting-edge, conventionally handsome at best (Stephen Daldry's Machinal with Fiona Shaw was one exception; more recently Edward II shone as a dangerous light in a safe theatrical environment). The Hytner era has been notable for polished middlebrowdom only. But in Peter Hall's day they did import a great deal of major world theatre, an honour which has since devolved to the Barbican.
Hall wrote in the 1987 programme how in 1973 the innovation of Peter Daubeney's World Theatre seasons for the RSC had come to an end:
Since then, London has been practically starved of large-scale theatre from abroad. When we opened on the South Bank 10 years ago we did have visits by German, Spanish and French companies: Peter Stein, Nuria Espert and Roger Planchon came to cheer us on our way. We believed at the time that similar visits would be a regular part of the NT's life. But then - despite ample evidence that paybacks to the Treasury arising from the arts probably reduce their cost to the taxpayer zero - the long, painful freeze on arts subsidies began.
Plus ca change, everything goes in cycles, choose your cliche. Anyway, I'll never forget the violent scenes in Bergman's much cut-about and (often excitingly) transposed Shakespeare between Peter Stormare's raging Hamlet and Pernilla Östergren's Ophelia (she also played the lame redheaded maid Maj in my favourite film ever, Fanny and Alexander, and came to the Barbican, now married to Bille August, in Bergman's equally revelatory production of Ibsen's Ghosts). One image branded itself on the memory: out of the flock of black-clad umbrella holders at Ophelia's rainy funeral stepped the girl herself as we'd seen her in an early scene, garlanded. Ghost-like, she walked straight down the centre of the stage, along the front and off.
Gay films sweet and grim have impacted on our perception of relationships in a different key. North Sea Texas is a beautifullly filmed work by Flemish director Bavo Defurne about the pain and the happiness of teenage love, with a final stress on the happiness. The love is a given, or becomes so shortly after we've been introduced to ordinary 15-year old Pim (Jelle Florizoone) and his older friend Gino (Mathias Vergels), both children of very different single mothers. OK, so the actors are maybe a little too good looking for this to be a drama of everyday life, especially fairground worker Zoltan (Thomas Coumans), likely to be any teenage gay boy's object of desire.
But the truthfulness is low-key and affecting; if there's a bit of wish-fulfilment in it, what's the harm in that? The main thing is that Pim is neither oppressed nor repressed, showing how far we've come in gay narratives that just are. Alas, I suspect that the very different tone of the horrible Afrikaans film Beauty (Skoonheid) from Oliver Hermanus, about a twisted older man's pursuit of a straight boy (Charlie Keegan), is possibly all too true of a still macho, dirty-secrets society.
Even less is made explicit here; we simply follow a closeted factory boss (Deon Lotz) with anger management problems watching, waiting, saying very little, and know we're in for a bad time from fairly early on.
The deeply upsetting climax of the film gave me palpitations, and I almost wished I hadn't watched it. But powerful and open-ended it certainly is, and the performances are brave indeed. Tonight it's back to the stylish world of Paolo Sorrentino and his stupendous leading actor Toni Servillo in Il Divo, an earlier film about Andreotti's awful reign in Italian politics*. J watched it yesterday evening while I was finishing off the fourth of my night-after-night speaking engagements, and raved about it. So now it's time to ease the pressure a little before getting to grips with the two dozen Parsifals - not that I haven't had a wonderful week.
Scenes from a Marriage production photos by Nobby Clark
*or it would have been had my friends and neighbours Juliette and Rory not already seen it. So it was Hollywood screwball comedy time, with the fast patter of His Girl Friday not quite as funny as I'd remembered it - if only Hildy had been played by Katherine Hepburn and not the somehow charmless Rosalind Russell.