Swooningly Dickensian stage adaptation of Bergman's classic film about two Swedish siblings
London currently seems to be awash with epic plays that sail well over the three-hour mark. And like the National Theatre’s gargantuan ‘John’, ‘Pride’ writer Stephen Beresford’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 film masterpiece justifies its hefty run time.
Unlike ‘John’, ‘Fanny & Alexander’ heaves with incident. It’s a borderline magical realist interrogation of human morality that follows the eponymous early twentieth century Swedish siblings – though mostly the older, angrier Alexander – through a tumultuous period in their lives. In it, they go from cosseted scions of a troubled but loving theatrical dynasty to suffering at the hands of their monstrous stepfather, Bishop Edvard Vergérus.
Max Webster’s heady production is not flawless, but it’s a pretty tremendous achievement. The first part is the flimsiest, set in happier times before the children’s father’s death. It’s full of metatheatrical japes – Alexander brazenly comes on at the start and declares that this will be ‘the longest play in the history of the world’ – food porny descriptions of feasts and an eccentric sea of relatives, presided over by Penelope Wilton’s stately, steely Mrs Helena Ekdahl. But there’s a darkness there, both in the Grim Reaper of little Alex’s fantasy and the obvious faultlines in his parents’ marriage.
It ends with a gorgeously oppressive, snowswept funeral scene, the first of several remarkable tableaux from designer Tom Pye. The most haunting comes in the phenomenally good second act, in which the Bishop’s desiccated household swoops in from the dark to replace Fanny and Alexander’s vibrant old life with a bleached wooden corpse.
This clash between the jaded acting dynasty and the Bishop’s joyless, spartan household is the most thrilling bit of the play. It’s never in doubt that we should root for the former. But Bergman and Beresford’s characterisation is at its most complex and entertaining here. There’s something malevolently Dickensian about the Bishop and his family. But we see that the man has been shaped by tragedy and self-loathing, and Kevin Doyle is excellent in the role, imbuing him with a plain spoken, down-to-earth quality that resists panto villain excess. Meanwhile the children’s mother Emilie (Catherine Walker) recognises the magnitude of her mistake in marrying the Bishop almost immediately. But we see that it was a sort of self-indulgence that led her to do it in the first place, an idle fancy that perhaps this man’s monstrous drive might give her direction too.
Things get increasingly fantastical in the final act, full of magic and death. It’s wild and surreal, the most indulgent part but also the most thrilling – rather than follow the usual rules of tragedy, catharsis and happy endings, ‘Fanny & Alexander’ kind of blows its top in a satisfyingly elemental fashion.
While Bergman’s even lengthier original film successfully gave the sense of a strange world viewed through small eyes, here Fanny and Alexander feel comparatively downplayed as characters, perhaps for fear of laying too much on a rotating cast of child actors. There was an excellent turn from Misha Handley, who played Alexander on press night, but it doesn’t quite feel like his story, more a grand, phantasmagorical melodrama in which he plays a significant role.
It’s an unusual show in many ways, but steadied by a first rate cast, I think we can call it one of the more successful creations of the Matthew Warchus regime at the Old Vic. It’s not always subtle, but it’s possessed of a surging emotional swoop and visual audacity that bursts its way into your heart.