Review: Fanny and Alexander (Old Vic, 2018)

Fanny and Alexander

Old Vic Theatre, seen 9 March 2018

dir. Max Webster

screenplay by Stephen Beresford

based on the TV/film by Ingmar Bergman


[warning: spoilers]


The new play adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1982 TV series (later cut down to feature film length) Fanny and Alexander gives a tantalizing glimpse of what Chekhov could have been if he had had a sense of humour. Bergman’s writing is a gift to any playwright, combining masterful comedic awareness – here enhanced through the playful, back-and-forth riffing of Beresford’s screenplay – with a profound awareness of the inescapable horror of the world; the darkness that lingers nonchalantly alongside its humanity, hope and light. Unlike Chekhov, Bergman’s portraits of family drama manage to be both painfully true to life and simultaneously cast a light (or shadow) upon the wider world, not through clumsy, sociopolitical metaphor but through its central poetic arguments – in Fanny and Alexander, the power and necessity of art and storytelling, as powerful as the bonds of family; the griefs of childhood, love and death; the fatality of moral righteousness and moral authoritarianism. Religion, art, love, death, grief, anger, childhood, ageing – it’s all there, all seamlessly falling into one another like a graceful, violent dance.

Image courtesy of the Old Vic.
The cast of Max Webster’s 2018 production of Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic. Image courtesy of the Old Vic.

Webster has done an impressive job of adapting the most novelistic of Bergman’s cinematic works to the stage, remaining faithful to the spirit and atmosphere of the original while embracing the imaginative flexibility offered by the stage form. This is greatly helped by Tom Pye’s set design, which foregoes drowning the mise en scène with detail (a trap common to staged period dramas) for minimal but evocative brushstrokes of detail. For example, Isak Jacobi’s puppet-filled house is revealed to us slowly, in tandem with the actors’ verbal description, the puppets descending from the ceiling one by one, allowing the audience to slip into their own imaginative work and fill the rest of the room with more magical paraphernalia. It provides a wonderfully elusive, transgressive space for Isak (Michael Pennington) to deliver his beautiful monologue on the ceaseless, deeply human need to tell stories.

Elsewhere the same effect is achieved through having ensemble members describe to the audience the sumptuous dishes endlessly offered up at the Ekdahl table, immersing all the senses and reaching across the fourth wall to draw the audience into its world. (This is again in stark contrast to the average, incredibly staid period drama, which, for all its knowing looks towards the audience, remains primly squashed between its red velvet curtains.) Such simple tricks reinforce the play’s championing of the imaginative world, rich with colour and texture, over the austerity of the Bishop’s castle, an upside-down world where storytelling is called ‘lying’ and violence is ‘done with love’.

fanny-and-alexander-old-vic film
Jan Malmsmö and Ewa Fröling in Ingmar Bergman’s original TV series (1982). Image from

While the director has largely remained almost reverently true to Bergman’s original vision, there are a few notable interpretations of character that distinguish this production from its predecessor. The most intriguing is also the most difficult: Emilie Ekdahl, actress, mother of Alexander, wife of actor Oskar Ekdahl, and finally, after Oskar’s early death, wife of the above-mentioned Bishop Vergérus. With the help of Bergman’s super close-ups, Ewa Fröling’s Emilie needed very little dialogue to give a mesmerizing performance, radiant with sharpness and energy before her husband’s death, and after it, quietly tormented, sunken beneath a film of ice, but still razor-sharp in every feeling and movement. In the original, she is at first somewhat obscure to the audience, and, like Alexander, we want to cry out in disbelief and terror when she falls in love, inexplicably, with the Bishop – and this distance between her and us is powerful, reflecting the emotional distance that opens up between her and her children, and perhaps her and herself, in her grief.

On stage, an actor has no super close-up to aid her self-expression, relying instead upon dialogue and movement within a given space. Catherine Walker radiates a restless energy as Emilie, and grows into the role – more commanding – in the second half of the play. Beresford’s screenplay alters the story so that Emilie is troubled and unhappy before her husband’s death, giving her a more obvious arc of character development that follows a clear logical pattern, but too neatly explains away her choice of the Bishop and his ‘truth’ that stands in contempt of her profession as a storytelling and a champion of the plurality of voices and truths. I appreciate that this change gives Emilie greater autonomy as a female character whose development does not depend upon her husband’s death, but it takes away from the earth-shattering blow that Oskar’s death is meant to be, as the central event that kicks the story into action and changes the life of Alexander and all his family.

Image from
Kevin Doyle and Catherine Walker as Vergerus and Emilie Ekdahl. Image from

Sadly, the earth-shattering blow is already significantly dimmed in this production by the fact that the actor playing Oskar (Sargon Yelda) greatly lets down the rest of the cast with a highly inauthentic performance. With every line and gesture delivered, I winced. This may be in part to a directorial decision to make Oskar – in contrast to Allan Edwall’s world-weary old artificer of the original – a childlike character, more boy and teenager than father figure; but the effect doesn’t come off well, and when the family matriarch Helena (superbly played by the masterful Penelope Wilton) says that Oskar’s death threw the world off-balance, it just doesn’t ring true.

Image from IMDB.
Ewa Fröling and Allan Edwall in Ingmar Bergman’s original TV series (1982). Image from IMDB.

Lest you think I am biased by my love for the original, there is one new interpretation of character that works incredibly well, and that is Kevin Doyle’s Bishop Vergérus. A cold character of inscrutable violence in Bergman’s original, the Bishop is here rendered no less damnable but greatly more human, another tortured soul that mirrors Emilie and in fact outdoes her in grief (another point of contention for me – where is Emilie’s grief, such a powerful element to the story, in this production?). He is wholly convincing as a man convinced of his own moral righteousness and the truth and authenticity of his own, grown-up moral path, the path towards a single God and away from artifice and the superficial idols of the theatre, of fantasy, of magic and dreams, those deities so brilliantly invented by the storyteller of history and worshipped by the theatre-goer, the TV-watcher, the book-reader, the cinema-sitter…and of course, children.

Which leads me to my final note of praise, for the young actors playing Alexander and Fanny the night I saw the production, particularly Alexander, who was stunningly alive with the story he was telling, electric with emotion, invincible on stage. Sat beside Penelope Wilton, the pair leave us with a portrait of the old and young generations coming together, undistracted – like the other, self-absorbed grown-ups of the family – from the simple awareness that family and love are most vital to the fullness of life. They know that not claiming to understand the tumultuous twists and turns of life – ‘I don’t know [why things change]’ – is a more genuine venture than any attempt to claim a single moral vision of the world. Long live the joyous artificers.


Mariella Hudson


A Message for International Women’s Day

Happy International Women’s Day. I remember when I was a little girl at school, I repressed the ‘girlier’ sides of myself because I didn’t want to be seen as frivolous, inferior and stupid. Besides, I didn’t identify with the available models of girlhood; but I also knew the boys had no idea about some of the things I was experiencing. Now I love being a woman, despite the frustrations and dangers that accompany women in a still-unequal world.

It is heartening to be part of a generation of people – of all genders – that says ‘what? No way, fuck that’ to old prescriptions of behaviour and desire based on gender. I hope little girls and boys of upcoming generations will feel free to explore who they are without fear of rejection and shame.

It’s still tiring, sometimes, fighting the right fights. People will still laugh in your face when you say women aren’t yet equal; pay discrimination is perpetuated by societal models of finance, family and power that shift incrementally or not at all; and there are things you dream of doing that you can’t do, as I discovered when I left school and realised I wouldn’t be able to just take off and travel the world solo, like my brother had, because I would always be a target.

I have also experienced first-hand the damaging effects of living in a society that contains a gaping abyss where knowledge of the female body should be – a large part of the reason I decided to create a podcast about sex education, which I hope to launch this August.

Then there’s the fear and effects of assault and harassment, which I’ve written about before. I’ve been ‘grabbed by the pussy’ twice, once at 13 and once at 22 (and let me assure you, Mr. President, on behalf of everyone who’s ever been groped against their will, that you are a fucking moron). I am always ready to be harassed on the street, no matter the time of day – just last week a man repeatedly said “fuck you, fuck you” to me as I walked to the tube, and I’ve been called a tart and a whore by total strangers. And then you find yourself trying to explain inequality to someone without getting emotional because, for some reason, channelling emotion is seen as a weakness rather than a strength, and… It’s exhausting, sometimes. Exhilarating at others, when you find the people who are prepared to listen and really think, really question things.

There are people who get it; people who appreciate your strength, creativity and generosity and gender has nothing to do with it. And it is heartening to know that people have fought for gender equality for thousands of years, not just since the 20th century, though history has obscured many of them. We didn’t always rely on the current status quo either – this society was built, never inherent, never inevitable, and it can be rebuilt. Fathers can get equal parental leave, taking the pressure off women to choose between career and motherhood ; childcare can be affordable; harassment in workplaces and universities can be rendered as unacceptable as stealing or physically assaulting colleagues and peers, with transparent systems of accountability; the intersections between sexism, racism and poverty can be acknowledged and addressed; children can be educated about freedom and equality and what those mean practically.

There’s a lot to do, and a lot to talk about. Perhaps one of the best ways to fight the vitriol and ignorance is to do what you do, explore your talent and celebrate yourself, even if sometimes you feel a little like an alien. The planet is new. So let’s dance.

Sa dúlúchair,
i bpuóga dubha gach bliana,
mar chúiteamh comaoine,
ceapaim an ghrian
i gcuascomhlaí mo chroí
is teilgim í sna harda
le hurchar ceoil
de bhéala éin an earraigh

—Biddy Jenkinson

[In the deep of every winter since,
in the dark entrails of the year,
in return for this grace and favour
I set the sun up in my heart,
I lance it high into the bowl of air and light
on a bolt of music,
that the birds may follow it into the mouth of spring]
—trans. Theo Dorgan

Mirame – que haces crecer / La hierba de los prados, mujer
– Susana Baca

[Look at me – you make
The grass of the fields grow, woman.]

—trans. Mariella Hudson

Interview: Jay Smooth, Porn Actor & Model

My long-awaited interview with the charismatic and fiercely opinionated Jay Smooth has been published by Sex+ magazine! We talk sex education, mainstream vs ‘pretty’ porn, what it’s really like to work on a porn set and much more. Here’s a teaser:


I think that we are artists; I think we are doing things that shouldn’t be stigmatised and shouldn’t be negatively approached. We create positive energy. We spread sexuality, which is a positive force. We wouldn’t be here if it were not for sexuality, for sex!


You can follow Jay on Twitter at @JaySmoothXXX.

Anxiety, Sex and Relationships

Thrilled to have my own guest blog on 1000 Ways To Be Fearless! Please share far and wide!

1000 Ways To Be Fearless

Tips For Dealing With Anxiety in Sexual Relationships

Guest post by: Mariella Hudson

Figuring out sexual relationships is an activity fraught with emotion, what with the excitement, nerves and intense chemical reactions sparking neurons all over the place. If you have anxiety issues, the natural ups and downs can trigger distressing fight-or-flight responses – the last thing you want when you’re trying to get it on! As someone who has experienced her fair share of sexual anxiety and a variety of issues in tandem – depression, vaginismus, vulvodynia and mild PTSD – I’d like to offer a few tips for those uncertain how to manage their anxiety within the context of sexual relationships. It can be hard, but it’s never impossible.

Groundwork: The Right Support

Your anxiety is not going to go away without proper treatment. Do make sure you’re in consultation with your doctor and, if possible, a qualified…

View original post 2,818 more words

Conversations About Sex

The podcast now has its own website! Visit, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and join the conversation.

Conversations About Sex is a podcast that examines the cultural, societal and practical reasons why sexual education in the UK is doing little to equip young people for healthy and happy sex lives, and asks what we can do to make things better. Each episode will take apart a particular aspect of the sex education we all wish we’d had: consent, gender roles and identity, the myths surrounding virginity, porn and more (see below). I’ll be inviting professionals from a wide variety of industries to join the discussion, including porn actors, sex educators and medical practitioners, as well as ordinary members of the public.

Get involved

If you would like to contribute your stories, opinions and questions, I would love to hear from you, no matter your background or beliefs. Diversity of experience and opinion is key to making this project valuable and accessible to all.


Twitter: @mariella_hudson

Instagram: @mariella_hudson

Episode List

  1. What is Sex? (Not Just Penis-in-Vagina)
  2. Your Body (Masturbation and Anatomy)
  3. Virginity (Myths and Facts)
  4. Consent (and Healthy Relationships)
  5. Gender pt 1 (That Heteronorm: Masculinity and Femininity)
  6. Gender pt 2 (Bending the Heteronorm: Trans, Gender-queer and Intersex Identity)
  7. We’re Queer, We’re Here! (Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Identity and Issues)
  8. Porn (!!!)
  9. Safe Sex pt 1 (Sexually-transmitted diseases and Stigma)
  10. Safe Sex pt 2 (Dysfunction and Trauma)
  11. Are My Preferences ‘Normal’? (Kink and Asexuality)
  12. Different Bodies, Different Needs (Disability and Sex)
  13. Community (Religion, Medicine, Government and Your Parents)


Challenge your assumptions about sex.


The online portfolio of Mariella Hudson, Irish-Peruvian writer and podcaster. @mariella_hudson