A confusing and at times confused adaptation of Flaubert’s classic.
Peepolykus theatre company (No Wise Men, The Hound of the Baskervilles) bring their production of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to the Liverpool theatre scene with a mesmerising energy that turns the complex classic into a fast-paced comedy. Directed by Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse’s Artistic Director, Gemma Bodinetz, the self-styled “lovingly derailed” adaptation is a fun and entertaining piece of theatre, yet for me, is more reminiscent of a dazzling spinning top, flirting with the edge of a precipice.
With dashings of visual splendour and self-criticism, The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary is an aesthetically sumptuous and sensual production. The music and lighting evoked a fairground atmosphere, enhanced by characters whirling about the stage during the ball scene. The energetic physicality of the performers was at times beautiful, hilarious, but unfortunately occasionally awkward, leaving you feeling dazzled and unsure as to what you had just seen.
Told from the beginning that the story we are watching is not Flaubert’s narrative, that the rat-catchers we are introduced to in the first scene are merely a “framing-device”; the rich and humorous spectacle we have begun to enjoy is not ‘real’ in any sense. The narrative, the characters and even the audience are undermined from the off, with a show of hands of who has actually read the novel and discussions about the integrity of the play’s portrayal of its titular character, Madame Bovary.
the production is denied reaching the pinnacle of its profundity in favour of slap-stick Absurdism.
The production is then half narrative, half critique, continuing critical discussion and jumping between plots in a manner that by the end becomes familiar and enjoyable, managing to create a sense of manic cohesion. The “actors” agree to deviate from their initial plan to save Emma Bovary and allow her, her death. There is a sense of finality. The narrative and the discussion on the themes of the novel and complexity of Emma Bovary’s character reach their conclusions. However the can-can music and carnival lighting begin and completely undermine the beauty and sentiment that the production almost achieved.
Yes, it is a whimsical finale that arguably echoes the humour and zaniness of the production as a whole, a production that insists on repeating the uncomfortable magic-show-sex-scene that closes the first half post-interval, done to merely satisfy ‘popular demand’ and see the “actors” attempting to fill ‘awkward’ silences and deviations with a dinosaur costume. But surely a narrative is allowed to grow? Instead, the production is denied reaching the pinnacle of its profundity in favour of slap-stick absurdism.
Despite these reservations, the production was aesthetically glorious and was brilliantly executed by actors and designers. The set was fantastically creative, with floor to ceiling blackboards, allowing props and set pieces to be sketched throughout the performance. A sketched tap, record player and faded scribbles reminded the audience of the play’s literary origins and added to the creative atmosphere. The costumes (and costume changes) were impressive and well-utilised, as were the limited props: huge farmyard animals and an enormous chandelier-come-crinoline that made the production quite literally ‘larger-than-life’.
The acting was superb. Emma Fielding’s depiction of Emma Bovary was captivating and presented a sympathetic character as giddy with the unfolding events as the audience watching. John Nicholson’s Charles Bovary was a loveable, though frustrating innocent, whose exclamations of ‘I love peas’ was reminiscent of Cabin Pressure‘s Arthur. The real heroes of the production however were Javier Marzan and Jonathan Holmes, who in the blink of an eye exited as one character and re-entered as another, and in Holmes’ case played two characters at once. The sheer stamina of the four-man cast is applaudable. But despite their best efforts, unfortunately the play still seems to run away from them.
A multi-levular, meta-theatrical multi-roling, absurdist, slap-stick, farcical exploration of adaptation and the presentation of a women on stage and on paper; there is too much going on. The purpose, as well as the narrative, becomes lost in the spinning carnival atmosphere and its ambiguous tone, with its family friendly sex scene and innocent whimsy intermingled with sporadic “FUCK Offs”, makes it all the more confused.
Though fulfilling its promise of being “Massive”, this production among others I have seen recently seem to follow a trend of adapted classics whose actors and production team are let down by an unpolished script. The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary tries to do too much, ends up being confused, and is ultimately unsure of what it is trying to say. A great production if you want to have an enjoyable evening at the theatre, but not if you want to better acquaint yourself with Flaubert’s narrative.
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