First interval thoughts: It’s nice! I mean it’s pretty. It’s fun. I don’t think it’s great, but I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying it, in spite of my incessant need to justify liking something by constructing a pseudo-intellectual argument for its continued existence.
We call them ‘guilty pleasures’, don’t we? The things you like but feel bad admitting to (delicious food, beautiful clothes, drinking alcohol, liking art…). The stain of puritanism runs deep through British culture. Catholic guilt is a recognisable phrase, but what about puritan guilt? I’ve long suspected I’m afflicted by exactly this condition. Which means I either feel perennially bad for doing the things I like doing (food, clothes, alcohol, art) or brilliantly wicked for doing the things I like doing (food, clothes, alcohol, art). Either way, it’s not great to be constantly trapped in thinking “Oh, I’m so naughty for eating this quesadilla and drinking this beer,” or even: “Oh, I’m so naughty for spending all this time writing about theatre when I should be a teacher/nurse/trade union official.”
Stephen Beresford’s stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander is – I’m sorry, there is no way of saying this without sounding wanky. Stephen Beresford’s stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander is: A paean to the beauty and worth of art against the horrors and boredom of puritanism, in a world where lives can always end abruptly. Is that too much? Does it make you feel awkward to read something so indulgent? It is, after all, just a piece of theatre, and theatre is not – take heed, children – not a serious pursuit.
And Fanny & Alexander doesn’t necessarily convince you that it is. It doesn’t ram home the ars longa, vita brevis case any heavier than it pushes the point than strawberries and champagne taste better than cabbage soup and water. Instead, it feels like someone has had a lot of fun with this stage adaptation, and that person may well be set designer Tom Pye. It starts out as a lavish, perfectly plump Christmastime home of ruby red curtains, over-buffed dark wood and yellow upholstery. The colours are all brilliantly, over-bright technicolours, which are suddenly banished completely when the puritanical Bishop’s house looms forward to fill the space, replacing the extravagance of the Ekdahl’s home with a grey, concrete box (yeah, it’s not subtle – it’s grandiose and all the better for it). Later still, the space becomes Isak Jacobi and his nephew’s dwellings, a fairy-tale setting where endless newly-born puppets hang from the ceiling, menacing and magical.
Mark Henderson’s lighting design plays a strong part in reiterating the difference between life with the art-loving Ekdahls and the airless entrapment of an ecclesiastical existence. The light in young Fanny and Alexander’s lives almost literally goes out after their father dies and their mother remarries the boring bish’. It keeps glowing, however, for their resolutely decadent relatives – in particular in a picnic scene overlooked by a huge, hazy orange disc of sun.
The costumes are similarly unrestrained in conveying the division that comes to characterise the children’s lives. Alexander gets the classic Victoriana sailor suit treatment, going from white to navy as he grows older and more discontented. His mother, Emilie (Catherine Walker) prefers to wear what is essentially a silk wedding dress, before morphing into a monochrome ball of misery. Penelope Wilton as the older matriarch is so perfectly and absolutely peach that I imagine the character must also be wearing peach underwear, peach make-up and peach stockings. And eating peaches on a regular basis. Otherwise the look would just fall down.
All this visual beauty and the initial scenes before the first interval end up serving two purposes. The glamour and almost-tweeness is necessary because it sets up the contrast needed for the much darker subsequent parts of the story, when the Bishop stops being just dull and becomes damn right scary. This isn’t just a matter of aesthetics, a desire to have what you want, when you want it rather than practicing restraint. It’s essentially a fight been being creatively free or doctrinally restricted. But above all, these first flouncy, frilly parts function as a demonstration of Bergman/Beresford’s basic argument: that art can be gorgeous, fun and joyful – with no apology needed.
Fanny & Alexander is on until 14 April 2018 at the Old Vic. Click here for more details.