Scenes from a Marriage

Ingmar Bergman, adapted for the stage by Joanna Murray Smith

St James Theatre

From 11 September 2013 to 09 November 2013

Review by Philip Fisher

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Having seen the effort that Mark Bazeley and Olivia Williams put into what is close to a 2½-hour two-hander, one begins to understand why the opening was delayed due to illness.

The couple really do give their all in assisting Sir Trevor Nunn to re-create Ingmar Bergman's film on stage in 15 sometimes distressingly intense scenes.

The realism of this study of love and marriage seen in microscopic detail can be funny, truthful and terrifying, sometimes all in the course of a couple of minutes. That is its attraction.

Indeed, so great is its impact that a Government keen to promote the institution of marriage might wish that the censor still held sway, as this depiction is as good an advert for monogamy or promiscuity as they might ever hope to suppress.

The opening is rather trite, as Johan and Marianne are interviewed about a marriage so perfect that, in dramatic terms, it must be sitting at the top of an emotional ski jump, merely waiting for the smallest push that was set is on the way to a thrilling descent to who knows where.

The potential delights to come are made painfully clear soon afterwards during an intimate dinner party with married friends who would happily kill each other.

The stakes are raised as we see that the handsome, self-absorbed academic and his trusting divorce lawyer wife have two sweet kids, seen on home movies above a bare stage that is regularly transformed by minimal furnishings.

The slide starts after Marianne joyously announces that she is pregnant but gets an unexpectedly frosty reception to her good news.

Once the journey downhill has started, it gains speed and eventually leads to a shocking pre-interval revelation that had seemed inevitable from long before.

This is the moment when both actors move into top gear, leaving comic quips way behind. Olivia Williams portrays a wife's grief to perfection, while Mark Bazeley is particularly effective when it comes to conveying masculine ambivalence. This is then seen to be a trait that characterises the remainder of a play which impeccably demonstrates the emotions felt by a couple who are as unhappy together as they are when separated.

This version by Australian playwright, Joanna Murray-Smith brings the drama up to date and locates it in an everywhere that could as easily be British as Scandinavian. This was perhaps the intention, showing the universality of strong emotional responses, not to mention unbridled lust.

At times, the drama is so strong that some might find it difficult to watch but nobody could deny the power of the production, nor the skill and commitment of the leads.

Scenes from a Marriage may not make for comfortable viewing but offers far greater realism than almost anything else currently playing on a London stage.