Written from a characteristically bleak perspective, Ingmar Bergman’s unflinching, penetrating account of strained marital relations was originally screened as a six-part TV serial in 1973, then released as a shortened feature film and later adapted by Bergman himself for the theatre. This adaptation by Joanna Murray-Smith was first staged at the Belgrade Theatre five years ago by Trevor Nunn (starring his then wife Imogen Stubbs opposite Iain Glen), and now finally makes it to London with a completely new cast led by Olivia Williams and Mark Bazeley as the couple who can’t live with or without each other.
Fifteen scenes depict the dramatic ups and downs of Marianne and Johan’s relationship over a decade or so. We first see them about the time of their tenth wedding anniversary being interviewed by an old journalist friend of Marianne’s for a women’s magazine, when they seem to have the perfect modern marriage: loving companions, with two young daughters, and successful careers as a divorce lawyer and neuro-psychology lecturer, respectively. Their apparently harmonious relations are contrasted with their friends’ bitter bickering at a dinner party they host.
But the cracks that are revealed by Marianne trying to rekindle fading happiness by having another child which Johan doesn’t want turn into a chasm when Johan reveals he has been having a passionate affair with a younger woman with whom he is going to live in Paris. The marriage may appear to be finished but that is far from the end of Marianne and Johan’s tortuous story.
The five-times married Bergman was evidently a man attracted to and troubled by women in equal measure, and sometimes this work feels a bit like an extended form of relationship therapy. It shows with acute perception all the varied emotions of the couple’s fluctuating marriage, from affection and compassion, to selfishness and cruelty, but the intimate bond between them (even if it sometimes more resembles hate than love) is never in doubt: they know each other as well as themselves, in a battle of the sexes that comes across as Private Lives revamped by Strindberg.
Although Scenes from a Marriage certainly works as a play (with Bergman being a real man of the theatre), and Murray-Smith has followed the story fairly faithfully (with a certain amount of Anglicization and updating), this rather diluted version has nothing like the claustrophobic intensity of the original, filmed largely in confrontational close-up. However, Nunn’s production handles the dark comedy well, with screened family photographs and home movies of the off-stage children making up for some of the continuity lost in the multiple scene changing of Robert Jones’s set, as it switches between houses and offices.
The combustible chemistry between the two leads is convincing, with the rather more sympathetic Williams sensitively expressing Marianne’s doubts about her identity and uncertain mood changes, while Bazeley’s smug, blokeish Johan ultimately reveals a surprising vulnerability. There is good doubling support too from Aislinn Sands as both a drunken wife and flirtatious colleague, Shane Attwooll as an aggressive husband and sexist academic, and Melanie Jessop as a gushing journalist and muted divorce client.
With its compelling questioning of whether men and women are naturally made to live together for their whole lives, or if genuinely fulfilling long-term marriages are exceptions rather than the norm, it’s not too surprising to learn that apparently divorce rates in Sweden doubled in the year after Scenes from a Marriage was first screened.