In recent years, a palpable desire has started emerging among younger British audiences for the kind of theatre that might be described as ‘European’. This is not just a matter of expecting to see more international productions in the UK, but an expectation that those influences might begin to permeate the local theatre-making culture, changing the way in which both the artists and the critics view the medium of theatre itself. The most acute way in which this desire began to be voiced was around the London premiere of the international co-production of Simon Stephens’ play Three Kingdoms at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2012, resulting in a strong backlash of the blogosphere against the customarily dismissive and predominantly superficial evaluation of the piece offered by the mainstream press.
What are those European ways of making theatre? Some of the difference is contained in the conditions of cultural production – since the 19th century the Anglo-American context has honed a model of working known as ‘show business’; on the continent, in the meantime, the notion of theatre as a public good has been steadily maintained and government subsidy in many countries has continued to be comparatively generous. It is no news even to us in the UK that sustained and systematic theatre subsidy – longer rehearsal periods, collaborative ways of working, experimentation – can facilitate more interesting creative results. Hence numerous short-lived attempts at reviving the notion of ensemble-theatre in the UK – most recently the one headed by Sean Holmes.
But let’s talk about the differences contained within the ways in which these two models of working anticipate and reproduce different attitudes towards theatre in the audience – and specifically in terms of the theatre-makers and audience’s respective attitudes to text.
This month London has had an opportunity to see two very different theatre productions of Scenes from a Marriage – based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 TV series/film. One was directed by Trevor Nunn at St James’ Theatre, another by the Belgian director Ivo van Hove for Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Although both productions credit Bergman as the author of the original text, Nunn’s version additionally features the adapter Joanna Murray-Smith (a playwright with numerous Broadway and West End hits to her name) and Van Hove’s – a dramaturg, Bart van den Eynde. Every collaboration between the director and the writer/dramaturg is so specific it would be impossible to determine each collaborator’s contribution to the final result accurately, however, these two examples do give us perhaps a unique opportunity to distinguish between a ‘writer’s’ approach to theatre-making as opposed to a ‘dramaturgical’ one. And I strongly believe that it is this subtle difference that encapsulates some key differences between the distinct theatre-making cultures.
It is worth saying at the outset that neither production is necessarily a flawless piece of theatre or a particularly outstanding example of screen to stage adaptation in any way, but it is their comparison that yields interesting insights. It is also worth saying that Scenes from a Marriage is a six-part narrative, charting the latter ten years of Marianne and Johan’s twenty-year relationship, from the moment when the first cracks in their marriage appear, via some toing and froing between love and hatred, to the moment when, two years after the two are seemingly unhappily married to other people, they are reunited again in an illicit affair.
The Nunn/Murray-Smith adaptation is a straightforward linear scene by scene screen to stage rendering of the original, which however appears to leave enough space for the actors to re-imagine the characters for the 21st century. Approaching Bergman with a sense of humour, Nunn’s meticulously crafted version also tugs at the viewers’ heartstrings ultimately serving up the Chelsea and Westminster audience with a piece of theatre that demands self-recognition. Couples in the audience either left the theatre relieved at the extent to which their relationship seemed healthier than the one portrayed before them, or else deep in thought for some reason. (Though one could argue that the latter would have been owing to Bergman’s own power of perception intentionally conveyed by Nunn’s production.) This kind of ‘writer’s’ approach to text – in addition to harnessing the writer’s own credentials into the commercial value of the project – therefore assumes, I would argue, that the primary content worth conveying from one medium to another are the words themselves and the conceptions of character and narrative that stem from words as the main source of meaning.
The Van Hove/Van den Eynde collaboration could be seen to have in the first instance read the original differently. Not as a means of holding the mirror up to nature but perhaps with the curiosity and attention to detail of an engineer. Because of Van Hove’s primary interest in the film’s theme of ‘intimacy’ – which has also been translated into the way in which the production is presented to the audience seated, throughout, on the mostly bare stage with the actors – the Barbican programme note claims that this production represents ‘a return to the ideal of Theatre of Words in an era in which Theatre of the Image […] finds itself at a dead end’. But this is a misjudgment, rooted deeply in a British binary between the word and the image which could be traced back even to the 17th century quarrels between Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones.
On the contrary, this production is much less interested in words than Nunn’s production, and much more in the Theatre of Experience – a genre which has indeed developed under that name in the Dutch/Flemish theatre-making culture in recent years. At the core of this approach there seems to be a desire to share with the audience the inner workings of a particular idea – uncovered through a ‘dramaturgical’ reading of the original text (i.e. the film), which might be seen to take all levels of the text’s construction into consideration in the process of subjecting it to the specific conventions of theatre as an art.
In this case, I would argue, the idea in question is the vicious circle of the hopelessly co-dependent relationship portrayed in Bergman’s story. So what better way to allow the audience to ‘experience’ this fictional mechanism than to put them on a virtual ‘carousel’. The stage is sliced off into three mutually adjacent spaces with screens which have windows in them so that the ‘off-stage’ space in between the three parts can be gleaned. Three pairs of actors of different generations play the central couple – each pair given one of the first three sections of the narrative. As an audience we rotate from section to section, but we hear at all times the sounds of the past and/or the future coming from the other two sections being played simultaneously, and we catch glimpses of the characters’ younger and older selves in the ‘off-stage’ area at the centre. We quickly absorb the key convention of the piece that there is no expectation here for us to emote by identifying with the characters, though we can certainly relate to and appreciate the metaphorical content being highlighted in this way. This becomes especially thrilling when, half way through, the screens are lifted for us to witness the final impassioned reversals of the story – culminating in break-up sex and physical violence – played by all six actors simultaneously in various possible permutations, as a kind of complex but deeply poignant piece of dance.
Once again, the emphasis here is not so much on the verisimilitude or the skill of the actors in depicting these kinds of situations, but on the very idea that theatre makes a unique kind of contemplation possible for the audience. In this case: Would the same person have acted differently at a different point in their life? Would they have interacted differently with their partner if either of them had been able to be more or less mature, if they had had the benefit of more or less experience? Or simply, at this moment a new light is cast on that core Stanislavskian question: What if? So, as the physical fight comes to an end, we see each couple offer a different variation of ‘the end’.
The ‘dramaturgical’ reading of a text is obvious in the rigour with which some peripheral aspects of the adaptation are handled too. Rather than adopting without questioning the screen convention of cameo parts, due consideration is given to the function of every episodic piece of casting in this piece of theatre. The best example is an almost insignificant moment when towards the end of the piece, the actress Celia Nufaar reappears. She had appeared earlier on in the story as Mrs Jacobi, Marianne’s middle-aged client, stuck in a loveless marriage, and wishing to file for a divorce. When Marianne has eventually filed her own divorce papers, Nufaar glides onto the stage, seemingly ghost-like, and subtly juxtaposing two very different moments from the story itself. But in this instance she plays Marianne’s mother, providing pretext for the two characters to address generational differences in attitudes towards marriage – an aspect of Bergman’s narrative which was incidentally edited out of Nunn’s version.
In revisiting Bergman’s film itself, it becomes indeed clearer than in either of these two productions that the central female character’s most defining feature is her inability to assert and free herself of the constraints of her background, despite the fact that she has achieved considerable levels of political and sexual emancipation. And this is possibly the only aspect of the narrative that might be seen from a contemporary perspective to date it in some respect. Because Nunn’s version wishes to retain the representational format in its approach to the adaptation and engage the audience through the mechanism of self-recognition, elements that might date the production are a problem and they are dealt with by simply being removed. The ironic outcome of this is that in its pursuit of verisimilitude this production ends up appealing most directly to the limited demographic in their late 30s and 40s, or maybe even more specifically the demographic who were once in their 30s and 40s when it used to be customary for them to have started a family in their late 20s and whose marriages therefore reached a crisis point by the early 40s.
In other words in its pursuit of a universal appeal, Nunn’s production inadvertently seems to misfire somewhat. Van Hove’s production, on the other hand, achieves a universal appeal more successfully by way of a theatrical metaphor. Rather than asking us to relate to the work through our personal experience of life, it asks us instead to relate to it through our innate abilities to appreciate theatre as an art. And this is perhaps where another key difference between British and European theatre resides – the notion of theatre as public good (as opposed to show-business) frees the theatre-makers up to anticipate that their audience will want to be engaged intellectually, politically, emotionally and experientially, rather than being obliged to deliver sentimentality, entertainment and customer satisfaction.
Duška Radosavljević is the author of Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century.