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SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE – St James Theatre, London.

scenes from a marriage, st james theatreFirst, a word of warning: if you’re looking for a great first-date outing or anniversary treat, steer clear. Judging by the gasps of recognition, embarrassed laughter and knowing glances stealthily exchanged, Joanna Murray-Smith’s theatrical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 mini-series, which reportedly doubled the Swedish divorce rate, has lost none of its power to discomfit an audience.

Nor, in the age of wall-to-wall reality TV, is this frank portrait of marriage any less compelling, as Trevor Nunn’s production (which debuted in 2008, starring his then-wife Imogen Stubbs) retains the bruising authenticity of the original. Not all of the 15 vignettes are action-packed, and it can sometimes be difficult to discern the play’s dramatic arc – it’s less peaks and troughs than a murky stasis shattered by sudden crises – but, as with a complex mosaic, when you step back and view the whole, patterns suddenly become clear.

However, one of the main conflicts of the piece is between knowledge and ignorance: does rational, informed analysis of ourselves and our relationships lead to happiness or away from it? The central couple often view proceedings with an intelligent gaze – Johan is an assured academic, Marianne an experienced divorce lawyer – yet both struggle to achieve self-awareness and simultaneously question whether they really want to reach for that forbidden fruit. “Some things should be allowed to live in a half light,” observes Marianne.

At the start of the play, they are “the quintessential modern couple”, profiled in a glossy women’s magazine on their 10th anniversary and coolly judgemental of their friends’ disastrous union. Over the course of a decade, we see the cracks appear in that façade: what was once contentment becomes tedium, familiarity fatigue, security limitation, mutually accepted truth a fallacy. Johan claims they never really experienced a shared life – only loneliness is “absolute” – but that’s one of many contradictions bumping up against one another in this uncomfortably ambiguous piece.

At its best, Scenes from a Marriage is universal in its specificity, asking larger questions by chronicling the intimacy of the everyday in the rituals, interactions, roles and responses that form this relationship. However, both script and production are hazy on time period, which detracts from that detailed portrait. Ubiquitous iPads suggest contemporary, but certain attitudes and behaviours (particularly some appalling parenting and casual acceptance of domestic violence) are glaringly anachronistic. References to A Doll’s House, an exceptionally precise piece of Theatre, call further attention to that weakness.

The play also has a tendency to tip over into melodrama, or, if the audience reaction is anything to go by, black comedy; certain bleak, brutal lines are shockingly hilarious, or hilariously shocking. Whether or not that tonal dissonance is intentional, it does reinforce voiced taboos that still have resonance (such as the admission that a pregnancy may not be welcome), and sometimes provides momentary comic relief from this visceral dissection.

Mark Bazeley occasionally struggles to balance the analytical with the human, but he has a monumental task with Bergman’s semi-autobiographical, semi-monstrous Johan, who unapologetically abandons his family to satisfy his narcissistic needs and presents cruel acts as liberated behaviour. Bazeley fares better when Johan’s smug confidence crumbles into tremulous fragility, but, courageously, he never shies away from the selfishness at his core.

Olivia Williams is simply a revelation, switching effortlessly between Marianne’s insecurities, irrationalities and forcibly suppressed desires while breathing life into the quietest moment. Murray-Smith’s dialogue sometimes hovers uneasily between naturalism and blunt literal translation, but Williams finds the emotional truth in every syllable. Her chemistry with Bazeley is exquisitely rendered.

Maintaining that intensity is challenging in this production, which alternates snappy scenes with ponderous set dressing accompanied by video projections and increasingly wearying elegiac music. Such heavy-handed distractions are unnecessary when the central performances are this strong, and the material this provocative.

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Reviewed 25/09/13/

By Marianka Swain
@mkmswain

11th Sep – 9th Nov 2013
St James Theatre, London, SW1.

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Photography by Nobby Clark

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