Sir Trevor Nunn’s new production of Scenes from a Marriage packs a punch. A really hard punch. In fact, so hard was the punch that it packed last Wednesday night, I had to have a stiff drink afterwards just to calm my nerves.
It’s not because it’s “avant-garde”, or “gritty”. It doesn’t deliberately court controversy. There’s no violent onstage fornication, no gratuitous expletives, no breaking of the fourth wall. Indeed, stylistically, it’s bourgeois and staid, at least initially so. But it’s precisely because of this cultural familiarity that it hits home. Its brutality is neither ostentatious nor abstract. It’s not trying to bring down the Banks, or illustrate the impending doom of Western Democracy, it’s worse than that. Scenes from a Marriage is a dark mirror, reflecting what is for many the grotesque white elephant in the room of their lives – namely, the modern, middle-class marriage.
The play is adapted brilliantly by Joanna Murray-Smith from Ingmar Bergman’s original Swedish television series. Bergman’s story illustrates the dark, unvoiced despair of so many relationships and marriages. Its slow, gradual exposition bitterly unravels our social fantasy of love to reveal a nihilistic vision of human relations, based on an eternally unfathomable seesaw between content and discontent. Unsurprisingly, when the series was first released it was blamed for a rise in Swedish divorce rates.
Murray-Smith’s adaptation is seamless in its attunement to idiom. Apart from the protagonists’ names (Johan and Marianne) there is no indication that this is taking place in Sweden. Again this makes the play’s grim conception of modern love all the more shocking. It says to us: We could be anywhere in the Western World, and this same drama would take place in the same way.
The play is brought to life by Olivia Williams and Mark Bazeley. They fully inhabit their characters, enrapturing the audience in their emotional struggle. Cathartic gasps of disbelief, empathetic groans, and sharp intakes of breath laced with self-doubt are audible throughout the second-half as the pair orchestrate the audience’s emotions with their performances.
Great theatre has the power to affect you in a way which film or TV can never achieve. When humanity is laid bare in front of you so immediately and nakedly, as it is in Scenes from a Marriage, you can’t help but surrender to it. What you find may not be pleasant (e.g. don’t go if you’re on a first date or silently suffering in a stifling marriage), but it will be enthralling.
Scenes from a Marriage at the St James Theatre, 12 Palace Street, London, SW1E 5JA, until 9th November 2013. For more information and tickets visit the website.