Performing Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing Scenes From A Marriage eight times a week would test the mettle of the most emotionally secure actor, but Olivia Williams is only thinking of her audience: “I did send an email out to friends saying don’t come with your friends or lovers. I don’t want to screw up people’s lives.” Those lives could hardly be more screwed up than Marianne (Williams) and Johan’s (Mark Bazeley), a narcissistic catalogue couple, first seen being interviewed for a magazine article painting the portrait of a perfect marriage.
Yet beneath the veneer of wedded bliss is the estranged reality of their long-term relationship, neither content with their seeming contentment. Together and apart in the story of their lives, they remain oblivious to the other’s needs whilst desperately unaware of their own shortcomings, engaging in passive aggressive blame-shifting that soon flares up into domestic violence.
Long before any of this, we’re watching their best friends, played by Shane Attwooll and Aislinn Sands (the latter particularly brilliant), row over dinner, and a drunken divorce announcement that ends in spilt wine and raised fists. It’s a quotidian, bourgeois bust-up that finds a paradigm for Johan and Marianne’s subsequent living room ruptures – representative of any number of conflicted, middle class marriages weathering a storm of betrayals big and small.
Watching some of the things Johan and Marianne inflict on one another within the intimate space of the St James Theatre, single audience members may start to wonder if they really want to be with someone for the rest of their lives. For the couples not heeding Williams’ advice, the steady toll of elaborate deceptions, insincere intimacies and casual infidelities is sure to provoke a hollow kind of laughter in acknowledgement of their own worst instincts. If after only a few scenes you feel like you’ve met these people before, that’s probably because you are these people. We relate to Johan and Marianne so completely, despite the seething anger and vindictiveness of their circling humiliations, because we’ve all been there and done that. The implication of their back and forth chorus of abuse is that everyone watching is capable of similar cruelties which are verily instinctual.
If Sir Trevor Nunn’s production concerns itself with the human potential for cruelty and violence, it is equally concerned with the desire for enduring love, a contrast that pinpoints the pessimistic proximity of passion and violence. Bergman, it seems, is cynical of marriage but remains ever hopeful for true love. If marriage isn’t meant to last, and passion inevitably fades, true love is a persistent dull ache, which never goes away.
Williams and Bazeley ably balance pathos with flinty humour, a tragi-comic calamity that’s very insightful in terms of how people are unwilling or unable to communicate; saying what they think there and then without waiting and thinking it through. The laser-guided language of Joanna Murray Smith’s adaptation is so acerbically authentic, the lines practically come with stage directions indicating the manner in which they should be spoken.
As one half of a disintegrating union, Olivia Williams has a unique facility of playing the flaws of all-too-human behavior. Always in a state of delayed reaction, Marianne’s happiness is slowly replaced with heartache. With tensile strength, this open wound that can’t be cauterized is stoically bared by Williams, silently expressing the crushing realization that if home is where the heart is, it’s very often the place where real life romance goes to die.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on October 15, 2013