Madame Bovary is often considered the greatest novel ever written (yes, better even than War And Peace), but as you may have gathered from the exclamation mark and that word ‘massive’ in the title, this is an adaptation that doesn’t take Gustave Flaubert’s 19th century tale of thwarted romantic yearning entirely seriously.
The theatre company Peepolykus, who have produced the show in association with the Everyman and several other regional theatres, have form with literary classics, having already given a comic makeover to quite a few others, including a highly successful Hound Of The Baskervilles. If there’s any justice, The Massive Tragedy Of Madame Bovary! will now be one massive hit. It’s a riotous tour de force that tickles your heart and your head as well as your funnybone.
In the original novel, Emma Bovary is bored by the generally humdrum nature of French provincial life and, more specifically, by her husband Charles, a country doctor. Craving romance, excitement and the trappings of high society she has two doomed love affairs, which put her on a path to financial and emotional ruin. It’s much to the production’s credit that despite the prevailing comic anarchy this powerful narrative arc remains strong and clear.
The Everyman’s Artistic Director Gemma Bodinetz expertly directs a play full of movement and rapid scene changes, and the brilliant script is by John Nicholson and Javier Marzan, who also appear in the show alongside just two other cast members, the four actors sharing between them over twenty roles.
Flaubert’s heroine eventually kills herself by swallowing arsenic. This is not giving anything away because early in the performance the actors break out of character, play ‘themselves’ and tell the audience they’re thinking of changing the ending. This running commentary on what they’re doing continues as the play goes on and very effectively establishes a strong rapport with the audience. It’s also as funny as the other bits. Handing Emma Fielding a jar of arsenic, John Nicholson advises her not to really swallow any of it because they’re actually Radox Bath Salts. They won’t kill you, Javier Marzan adds, but they will make you feel very relaxed.
All four actors are terrific, though Marzan just about steals the show with a masterly comic performance. His parts include a rat catcher who buys up the town’s supply of arsenic and both of Emma’s lovers. One minute he’s channeling Stan Laurel, the next he’s a smooth-talking Latin lothario (his natural Spanish accent helps here). Jonathan Holmes’s multiple characters, which range from a blind accordionist to a rapacious loan shark and a malevolent Irish nun, often have a sinister edge reminiscent of Steve Pemberton in The League Of Gentlemen. When he’s out of character and playing himself his desperate attempts to convince Emma Fielding he’s every bit as feminist as she is generate a lot of laughs. John Nicholson is Madame Bovary’s nice but dim husband, a man who unfortunately for Emma only gets passionate when he’s expressing his enthusiasm for peas (shades of John Major) or his delight at having a few new cases of scrofula to investigate. In his role as another rat catcher he also has a very entertaining double act going with Javier Marzan. As well as a resemblance to Laurel and Hardy, there’s also a touch of Waiting For Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon about the pair.
Fielding herself vividly captures Madame Bovary’s frustration with her life, which has seen her exchange one domestic prison (we first see her living with her father) for another. Beneath all the comic mayhem there’s a serious reading of Flaubert’s novel that’s sympathetic to a woman battling against the suffocating constraints of a patriarchal society. When we reach Emma Bovary’s final crisis the actors stop the knockabout humour and play it straight for five minutes or so. The effect is surprisingly moving.
But otherwise it’s comedy all the way, comedy which is both verbal (‘My husband has no patience’ – ‘I’ll try to get ill then’) and physical. One seduction scene that’s accompanied by a bewildering series of conjuring tricks is so good it gets an encore performance after the interval. The play’s also a visual treat, with props, costumes and ingenious set changes galore. A huge glittering chandelier that descends from on high becomes a gilded cage, symbolizing not just Emma’s dreams but the reality of her trapped existence as well.
Hats off to everyone involved in this superb production.
***** Should be one massive hit
Photo credit: Jonathan Keenan
The Massive Tragedy Of Madame Bovary! continues at the Everyman Theatre until 27 February. For more information, click HERE.