The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary promises to be something it does not quite achieve. The cast tell us at the beginning of the play that they will show Emma Bovary as a three dimensional, fully-formed, complex character and that their adaptation will be riotously funny. Unfortunately, it largely fails on both accounts.
John Nicholson and Javier Marzan (both of whom act in the show) have adapted Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel, which they acknowledge most of the audience will not have read. This will not, they assure us, be an issue, but as the lengthy night draws on, this is proven to be false. The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary is comparable to the recent stage adaptation of Jane Eyre, which premiered at the Bristol Old Vic, and reveals different approaches to adapting classic novels. For Jane Eyre, not having read the book didn’t matter. It felt complete in its own way, with nuances and real characters who could twist our emotions. With Madame Bovary, however, the characters are more like paper-thin sketches who, rather than making us cry, tell us that we should be crying.
There is too much telling and not enough showing. The framing device of breaking the fourth wall is overtly introduced as a device and the meta-theatrical elements feel unnecessary. There is no interaction with the audience that adds to our understanding of the play. Instead, it loses our trust in the adaptation of this novel from page to stage. It’s as though they are covering their tracks for anything they fail to show in their performance, blaming the medium of their presentation for the gaps in the story or character. They say it would be boring to depict months of Emma’s depression, therefore they simply leave it out, but this severely damages our understanding of her character.
At times it is funny, but it’s more titter-inducing rather than causing enormous belly laughs and the biggest laughs come with double entendres that at times feel forced. There are moments when Marzan gets a big response from the audience and his humorous charm is engaging, but the production as a whole is trying too hard: to make us laugh, to make us understand Emma’s pain, to make us stand up and shout hooray for feminism and to impress us. It is not quite enough of any one thing. The play attempts to be tragic and farcical, magical and musical but the mash up doesn’t fit together. The way the cast of four change characters with speed and self-knowledge is rather fantastic, with Jonathan Holmes’ management of 18 separate characters being particularly note-worthy. Nevertheless it feels too rushed – a particular problem when the production as a whole feels too long. The pace never slows, creating a sort of relentlessness.
Conor Murphy’s enormous chalkboard set is used well and inventively but it doesn’t fit with the oppressive world they are trying to show. Part of the difficulty in seeing these characters as real is that what they create onstage is so changeable. The dialogue is so fast-paced, the character changes so quick and the set so playful that the idea of Emma being trapped doesn’t carry any weight.
Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre manages to breathe life into an old novel through theatre and Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places and Things breaks down the idea of stagecraft for an audience. The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary attempts but fails to do both. All four members of the cast are great character actors but their attempt to create a show that is both a farce and makes us understand the emotional depth of Flaubert’s novel is overly ambitious. Instead they create a pleasant comedy that, both in humour and understanding, sometimes falls flat.
There are some delicate moments that draw you in. As Emma speaks about projecting the perfect image of a man onto her partner I felt a little knocking at my own heart, and when her husband takes her on an imaginary walk at her deathbed you begin to believe in them as characters. But then the farce and direct address are back, and that belief is shattered.
The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary is on until 7th May 2016. Click here for tickets.