The Old Vic has done it again – achieved the seemingly impossible. They are currently enthralling audiences with a lengthy staging of Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman’s epic, semi-autobiographical Swedish family drama, with a script by Stephen Beresford which condenses the original television version and the Academy Award winning 1983 foreign language film.
Set at the turn of the 20th century and telling the story of the well-off theatrical Ekdahls, Penelope Wilton is nothing short of magnificent as Helena, the grandmother with a colourful past that makes her both worldly and liberal. There are tender scenes between her and long-standing Jewish lover, Isak Jacobi (Michael Pennington) and dressed in a red satin gown designed by Laura Hopkins, she delivers a wonderfully warm, vivacious portrait of the grand dame of the family theatre which her son Oscar (Sargon Yelda) manages, alongside his actress wife Emilie (Catherine Walker).
Yes, there are the usual family ups and downs and infidelities, but life is good, as illustrated by the grand Last-Supper-style banquet (Set Designer Tom Pye) and a detailed narration of the food they consume. Yet when Helena announces graciously, wisely, reluctantly her intention to retire from the stage, it signals the beginning of a change of fortunes for all, not least her young grandchildren Fanny and Alexander, played by an alternating series of fine young thespians, on my night Molly Shenker as Fanny and Jack Falk as Alexander. Brilliantly directed by Max Webster, the poignant themes of vanishing childhood happiness and being at the mercy of Death and the decisions our elders and parents make are the thread that runs throughout; a constant source of interest in a play that begins with hilarity and sharply morphs into a tale of brutality and possession, including several nightmarish appearances from The Grim Reaper.
When Oscar dies and leaves Emilie a widow, she makes the grave mistake of marrying the sadistic local bishop Edvard Vergérus (Kevin Doyle of Downton Abbey fame), who demands that she and her children cut themselves off from the Ekdahls and leave all their belongings behind. Edvard and Blenda (Annie Firbank) his sister/housekeeper’s strict way of life goes much further than simply living on a diet of black bread and Doyle is a truly menacing force on stage, whether he is wielding the cane over Alexander or refusing that the pregnant Emilie leave when Isak later attempts to negotiate a divorce on her behalf following her illicit meeting with Helena in which she confesses her true situation – hardly better than a captive.
Make no mistake, audiences have to seriously commit to a play of this weight and intensity, with a running time that isn’t far off watching Ben-Hur, yet each act is so beautifully staged and so psychologically revealing, that you are ever keen to return to your seat after the short pauses and discover more. Even at the darkest moments there is a wonderful humour that has everyone holding their sides. Whilst some subscribers of other adaptations of Bergman’s work may have felt let down (as people often do when anything new comes along) or that there were too many set changes, I believe this production to be rightly judged and deeply poetic. Perhaps I was fortunate in not having seen the television or film versions, for this is a stand-alone work that should be appreciated on its on merit. Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic is an utterly rewarding night of theatre that will stay with me, haunt me.
Fanny and Alexander at The Old Vic until 14th April 2018. Running time 3 hours 30 minutes with two intervals. Production images by Manuel Harlan. For more information and tickets please visit the website.