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Scenes from a Marriage

  • Theatre, West End
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

This review was of the show's run in Amsterdam prior to its transfer to the Barbican Theatre.

In relationships, the passage of time turns us into very different people. Dutch company Toneelgroep Amsterdam have taken this idea and run with it. Performed with English surtitles, their adaptation of Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman’s unsparing 1973 cinematic dissection of marital breakdown is an engrossing experience.

This touring production – which follows Trevor Nunn’s version of ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ at St James Theatre – makes its UK debut after premiering in 2005. It strips Bergman’s film to its essentials: the cracks in the facade that break open the marriage of seemingly perfect couple Johan and Marianne.

Bergman’s lacerating insight into our capacity for self-deception is punctuated by warm flashes of humour and fragile moments of intimacy, even as Johan tells Marianne he’s leaving her for someone else. The ten-strong cast give beautiful, at times painfully raw, performances.

If that sounds like a lot of people for a piece about two characters, that’s because different actors play the couple at differing ages. This chronological sleight-of-hand is highly effective, bringing the emotional weight of years to bear on Johan and Marianne’s struggle with who they are.

Toneelgroep are well known for giving classic texts vigorous modern makeovers and it’s certainly the case here. In the first half, director Ivo van Hove has three pairs of actors perform different scenes against each side of a central triangular space. The audience moves in groups between these, not necessarily in order.

Quiet moments are interrupted by arguing elsewhere, as scenes played simultaneously intrude on each other. When this happens, the actors react as if to noisy neighbours. The various Johans and Mariannes are the same but different: not a single voice through time.

The ultimate effect – intensified by the second half’s reconfigured stage space – is to make an ‘us’ of ‘them’. A chorus of Johans and Mariannes mirror our own foibles in a way that feels truthful rather than gimmicky.

At nearly four hours, this production takes stamina, and Marianne gets stuck in a frustratingly weepy loop in the early scenes. But these are minor grumbles about an audacious re-imagining of Bergman that strikingly lays bare the knotty complexities of human nature and relationships.

By Tom Wicker


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