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You can see the temptation to turn Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar-winning, autobiographical 1982 movie into a stage show. It is, after all, a celebration of theatre, fantasy and family life. But, while Stephen Beresford’s adaptation is faithful and Max Webster’s three-and-a-half-hour production gallops along and fields especially strong performances from Penelope Wilton and Michael Pennington, it mostly lacks the nightmare intensity of the movie and the feeling that we are sharing a child’s vision of the adult world.
It starts with the boy Alexander – excellently played by Misha Handley who shares the role with three others – coming before the curtain in his sailor suit to tell us we are about to see the longest play ever. But we quickly lose the sense that we are watching events through the prism of the boy’s memory. What we get, in the first third, is a recreation of a rackety Swedish theatrical family circa 1907. We see them doing a kitschy nativity play, rehearsing Hamlet and enjoying a yuletide feast where an eccentric uncle lights his own farts. The influence of Dickens on Bergman is visible – there are echoes of the Vincent Crummles scenes from Nicholas Nickleby and the Fezziwig party from A Christmas Carol – but the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Easily the most dramatic section, in a three-act show, is the middle one. Alexander’s father has died and his mother, Emilie, marries a punitive, puritanical bishop, Edvard, who represents everything about the rigorous Protestant conscience Bergman detests. The swagged curtains of the first act give way, in Tom Pye’s design, to stripped Swedish pine as the story moves from childhood idyll to the Brothers Grimm. Kevin Doyle is very good as Edvard, bringing out all the character’s sadistic abusiveness: there is a chilling moment when his hand delves under Alexander’s bedclothes only to fish out a wayward teddy bear. But Doyle gives Edvard enough dynamism to make you believe that Catherine Walker’s naively trusting Emilie might have fallen for him.
Thereafter the story becomes increasingly gothic, which is something that works better on screen than on stage: the world of ghosts, locked rooms and encounters with a cowled Death figure doesn’t exactly chill the blood. However conscientious the stage version, it can’t match Bergman’s genius for using the camera to pick up revealing detail, such as the moment when Alexander instinctively recoils as his dying father grips his hand with ferocious tightness.
What I most enjoyed was the acting. Wilton is superb as Alexander’s grandmother. She gives us the imperious dignity of the stage veteran, treats precise articulation as a moral virtue and yet exudes a sense of bubbling mischief: at one point she tearfully reminisces about her dead husband while fondling her longtime lover, Isak. Pennington, in an equally fine performance, lends this elderly Jewish antiques dealer a spry wit and abiding belief in the power of fantasy.
Lolita Chakrabarti as Edvard’s venomous sister, Jonathan Slinger as a lecherous restaurateur and Thomas Arnold as the uncle with the explosive bottom all give rich performances. But, while the production offers a fast-moving family saga and dispels the myth of Bergman as a monastic gloom merchant, it only fleetingly captures the magic of the movie.
At Old Vic, London, until 14 April. Box office: 0844-871 7628
Source: The Guardian
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