Playhouse, October 18
Other people’s marriages are mysteries. Even if you know the couple well you only see the version presented for external consumption; not the bedroom nuts and bolts, the power dynamics, conflict resolution or any other aspects of shared domesticity. When Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage first aired on Swedish television in 1973, as well as being revered and hugely influential (even more so once condensed for cinema), it was deemed provocative enough to have caused a spike in the divorce rate!
It was partly autobiographical, about his relationship with Liv Ullmann, who played the female lead, Marianne. As much as I admired the film’s forensic dissection of a break-up and its aftermath, I never quite believed in the attraction between Marianne and Johan (Erland Josephson). So I was intrigued whether this stage adaptation by director Thomas Bendixen (for the Royal Danish Theatre), starring Stine Stengade and Morten Kirkskov (both familiar to local audiences from TV’s Borgen), would prove more convincing.
The answer has to be “maybe”, because although the chemistry between Stengade and Kirkskov is more compelling than Ullman and Josephson’s, Bendixen has opted to give Marianne’s dialogue to Kirkskov and Johan’s to Stengade. (If someone staged a classic right now that did not include gender-swapping it would be revolutionary!)
While this updates the marital politics, it also undermines both characters’ credibility to some degree. I understand the intent (wickedly enunciated by Marianne as achieving “collective male guilt”), but given the frustrations of Josephson’s screen performance, I’d have been fascinated to see how much more sympathetic Kirkskov may have made Johan.
Instead we absorb engaging portrayals of the gender-swapped characters, with the atmosphere between them generally lighter and more playful, and Marten K Axelsson’s follow-spot-oriented lighting creating fascinating shadow-play on his neutral, horizon-less set design. Made plainer, too, is that for Marianne the marriage has been shattered by its very idyllic fastidiousness and predictability. In its aftermath they upend this by making love to postpone signing their divorce papers.
The work remains partially an exploration of the evolution of desire, and, sadly, seven years after the break-up the pair arrive at an understanding that is where their relationship probably should have begun. Both performances are commendable and sometimes exceptional, and yet the play, like the film, is oddly unfulfilling.