Saturday, 30 April 2016

'The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary!' - Bristol Old Vic

Photo by Jonathan Keenan

“I don’t want to be unhappy anymore!”

So cries Emma Bovary in despair, frustration and anger at the cards she’s been dealt in life. A boring, passionless marriage; life as a doctor’s wife in a sleepy isolated town; an ever-growing string of secret debts racked up to alleviate her boredom.

I’ve never read Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel Madame Bovary but by all accounts (unlike the Peepolykus production of the play currently showing at Bristol Old Vic) it is not a comedy. The book tells the tale of unhappy Emma Bovary but denies her a voice in her own story. Something the play seeks to redress, while transforming the melodrama into a comedy via slapstick, song, dance and joyous silliness. All to fabulous effect.

Directed by Gemma Bodinetz, and rewritten by Peepolykus’ John Nicolson and Javier Marzan (who also star in the performance), this new version of Madame Bovary is a positively feminist affair of a woman whose, well, extramarital affairs and illicit overspending see her become the talk of the town and not in a good way. She becomes so unhappy, so desperate, so shamed that she attempts to end her own life… again, not necessarily the topics for a comedy. But I’m a firm believer that, done well and done correctly, comedy is the perfect tool for communicating difficult and uncomfortable subjects. And fortunately, via Nicolson and Marzan, Madame Bovary handles these topics well.

With a tiny cast of four (Jonathan Holmes and Emma Fielding complete the quartet), this group does a mind-blowing job of portraying a staggering number of different characters. Honestly, I lost count of the number of characters about 20 minutes into the first act.

The deliberate breaking of the fourth wall during this production of Madame Bovary works to fine effect to highlight why the play has been transformed as it has; and to really outline why Emma Fielding (who plays Emma Bovary) is so frustrated with her character, and the problems of playing Bovary as she was originally written. While the almost-slapstick use of physical comedy to portray, for instance, horse riding or time passing is hilarious; real laugh-out-loud good old-fashioned silliness. But possibly my most favourite of all the ridiculously silly moments is when Emma’s husband Charles attempts to sit at a table without a chair… just joyously funny.

Photo by Jonathan Keenan

Flitting from the home of her tiresome father to her boring husband, and the beds of countless uncaring lovers thereafter, Emma Bovary is a woman squashed by patriarchy. Later readings have questioned whether her character is experiencing postnatal depression or bipolar disorder; all of which were unrecognised at the time Flaubert was writing. Yet Fielding portrays Bovary with a combination of stubbornness, lunacy and desperation… but I still promise you: this is a comedy.

Flaubert described Madame Bovary as a story about nothing… and perhaps in doing so he was deliberately revealing that it was in fact a story about all of the things of which we cannot speak (mental health, infidelity, marital unhappiness, spiralling debt…). Is it a stretch too far to compare this to Seinfeld: a sitcom about nothing, and arguably the most successful and popular sitcom of all time? At its most simple, this suggestion forces the audience to question what ‘nothing’ really means, because everything must be about something… but what that something is will vary from person to person, depending on how you yourself see the world.

The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! is performed at Bristol Old Vic until May 7. For more information and tickets, please click here.

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