Hjalmar Bergman's 1919 story has apparently enjoyed enduring popularity on stage and screen in Sweden, but this is its British première. The small-town Machiavelli who gets his comeuppance and finally reforms upon learning a secret from his own past is a vibrant, gleeful character, but Derek Martinus's direction of Eivor Martinus's adaptation confines both Markurell and the other characters in one mood until it is too late for them to break out.
We are left in no doubt from the start that this is a comedy: Markurell's wife and Mr Ström, the town barber and Markurell's chief minion, converse in comedy West Midlands accents on Spencer Chapman's out-of-character pseudo-Ikea set, and do their best to leaven the extraordinary amount of exposition necessary in the opening scene – affable but lazy young Johan Markurell sitting his university entrance exams, his father intent on ruining his bête noire Count de Lorche and on bribing the examiners, a web of complex links between the two families... Derek Martinus presumably felt that the only safe path through this quagmire was that of broad humour. Consequently, every character is a class and/or personality stereotype played for laughs, right down to the retired general who exits on an imaginary horsey. Only Beata Kinsley as the Countess de Lorche is allowed to give a wholly straight performance, but she proves an insufficient fulcrum to swing the mood of the play round when it darkens at the end of the second act.
Terence Hardiman throws himself with relish into Markurell's cheery villainy. His hair streaked with infernal red, contrasting with the liquid-nitrogen coldness of his eyes, he is almost a pantomime troll-king. Hardiman taps into the same malicious pleasure that informs many of Gavin Richards's performances, rumbling through his enemies' account-books like a force of nature and grinning all the while. There is no need to over-egg the pudding, as he has been directed to do on several occasions, with the mannerism of stopping in mid-sentence and emitting a sudden "What?!" with the frenzy of Harry Enfield's Double-Take Brothers.
Yet both the script and programme notes make clear that Markurell is finally humbled by a murky past which even he did not realise he had. However, by the time the skeleton is yanked out of the closet the players are so completely committed to comedy that they are unable to change register. Hardiman and Helen Cotterill as his wife struggle valiantly, but they have been painted into a corner; Geoffrey Drew as Ström is by now so enveloped in his snideness that he is unable to rise to the challenge of becoming a Mosca to Markurell's Volpone.
If, as we are told, the appeal of Markurell is due to his lively humanity, both comic and tragic, then this production fatally fails to get the balance right; it aims to cut a caper but ends up severely limping.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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