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
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.