Belgrade Theatre B2, Coventry
Opened 15 January, 2008

Trevor Nunn has chosen a strange way to limber up for directing the stage musical of Gone With The Wind in the West End in April: by returning to Coventry after 40-odd years to use its new second house for an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1973 TV mini-series and film. Or maybe not that strange: like Rhett and Scarlett, Johan and Marianne can neither stay together nor stay apart, and it would not be entirely implausible to hear Iain Glen’s emotionally semi-detached Johan remark that frankly, my dear, he didn’t give a damn.
Although care is taken not to make the play either temporally or geographically specific, its sexual politics and openness of discussion do feel mildly 1970s and Swedish. Of course, these are Bergman brushstrokes as well, and adapter Joanna Murray-Smith shares his predilection for heightened intellectual and emotional articulacy.
In other respects the translation between media is less comfortable. Nunn’s production and Robert Jones’ spare design keep us close to the action, but not as close as Bergman. The usual argument about the greater connection of live theatre is reversed here; the eye of Bergman’s camera could get much closer and feel more unblinking than a human spectator – at once intimate and almost surgical. The couple’s two daughters do not appear onstage (nor do they onscreen in Bergman’s work), but they crop up repeatedly in the film montages shown between scenes; this makes their physical absence more conspicuous, which may be an intentional comment on how little they seem to impinge on Johan and Marianne’s married life but also seems simply odd.
Glen is excellent at being not quite there emotionally; when Johan belatedly discovers a heart (thanks to a 23-year-oid mistress), Glen plays him as at once fascinated and overjoyed, yet not really knowing how to “do” joy or passion. As Marianne, Nunn’s wife Imogen Stubbs gives a performance which is lucid but if anything too clear. Stubbs’ acting is much more transparent than original Marianne Liv Ullmann, who was far more accomplished at ulteriority and Marianne’s occasional viciousness. Stubbs seems merely petulant, and when the couple come to brandy-fuelled blows over the divorce papers, the increasingly broad drunk-acting of both actors makes the scene seem like something out of a Jim Cartwright play.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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