Monday, 21 October 2013

Theatre review: Scenes From a Marriage

A delayed trip for me to Scenes From a Marriage at the St James Theatre, as I'd booked to see a show early in the run but Mark Bazeley's illness resulted in not just that night but a whole week's worth of performances being cancelled. Happily Bazeley is looking more than healthy again now as he and Olivia Williams play Ingmar Bergman's warring couple, in an adaptation by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Trevor Nunn. Johan and Marianne are a happily married couple, so much so that we meet them giving an interview for a magazine article about successful marriage. Their confidence in the effortlessness of their relationship is misplaced, as becomes apparent over the next ten years while we follow them through a surprise pregnancy and abortion, divorce and, eventually, what kind of relationship is left for people who once seemed inseparable but proved better apart.

Scenes From a Marriage is inevitably a pretty bleak affair, with the odd moment of incredibly bitter humour. The two leads are excellent, Williams in particular is outstanding, but although it being heavy-going is to be expected I found a couple of other sticking points as well.

One is apparent from the opening moments, in that this isn't going to be an easy couple to care about. Of course, their bland self-satisfaction in their own marital success will prove one of the reasons for its failure, but it still means Johan in particular is unbearably smug, and his dialogue never feels like anything a person would say in real life - Marianne at least talks a bit more like a real human. Robert Jones' simple white set is coolly, clinically effective but the conceit of having all the furniture piled at the sides and set meticulously for each scene has mixed results: The slow scene changes in darkness while family photos or video are projected onto the back wall are effectively moody between longer scenes, but whenever there's a succession of shorter scenes we seem to get more set changing than play, and it feels like another example of Nunn's uncanny ability to stretch any play out to half an hour longer than it needs to be.

The production's still worth seeing for Olivia Williams' bruising performance, and some individual moments of it are painfully well-constructed. But for all the emotion being expressed by the characters on stage, I felt very much kept at arm's length from it.

Scenes From a Marriage by Ingmar Bergman, adapted by Joanna Murray-Smith, is booking until the 9th of November at the St James Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

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