“Sometimes it grieves me that I have never loved anyone. I don’t think I’ve ever been loved either. It really distresses me”
Trevor Nunn’s revisit of his production of Scenes from a Marriage for the St James Theatre was due to open last week but untimely and persistent illness for one of its leads, Mark Bazeley, meant that a series of early performances were cancelled and its opening postponed until tonight. And we could all probably do with some of whatever he took to get well as alongside the glorious Olivia Williams, there’s some extraordinary work going on here in this adaptation by Joanna Murray-Smith of Ingmar Bergman’s timeless classic, first seen at Coventry’s Belgrade back in 2008 with Nunn’s then-wife Imgen Stubbs and Iain Glen.
Over fifteen or so ‘scenes’ spanning a decade, we see the portrayal of Johan and Marianne’s marriage from the opening (dubious) highlight of being interviewed for a magazine on their 10th wedding anniversary through the trials of painful losses and abject betrayals into the battlefield of bitter recriminations, the divorce courts and beyond. It probes into the state of marriage with unblinking precision, peeling away the layers of complacency that settle into long-running relationships and revealing the truth about how people really feel about each other, no matter how messy or raw it becomes.
At its best, this is coruscating, blood-pumping stuff. Its blistering take on the institution of marriage is spell-binding as closeness is corrupted and intimacies become injurious – they say familiarity breeds contempt but it has rarely been so uncompromising as this. Williams cracks open Marianne’s veneer of domesticated bliss to reveal a mass of insecurities, anguished desperation at the prospect of being abandoned that is near-impossible to watch, along with glimmers of razor-sharp wit and intelligence to make her engagingly complex.
And Bazeley is excellent as mid-life-crisis-stricken Johan, never afraid of showing this man’s narcissism and cruelty for what it is as he chases personal desires, a new piece of skirt, at the expense of his wife and (unseen) child, exposing his character’s weaknesses with skill, yet always maintaining a credible lived-in-ness with Williams’ Marianne that makes them utterly believable as a well-worn couple, inextricably connected even as they tear each other apart. The only criticism I could wager comes with a particular jump in time which occurs late on and which exculpates some rather heinous business, Bergman/Murray-Smith ducking the exploration of one key aspect of the deterioration of this partnership.
Scenes are interspersed with snippets of home videos which are surprisingly effective; Shane Attwooll, Melanie Jessop and Aislinn Sands provide sterling support as a range of peripheral characters; and the piles of furniture that are loaded on either side of the set, ferried on and off by capable stage-hands, neatly suggest the accumulated piles of baggage that weigh us all down. Nunn directs with a surprisingly nifty sense of pace and though he doesn’t specify if we’re in Bergman’s Sweden, his own London or anywhere else for that matter, it never matters –it could be anywhere, anytime, any of us.