When I was a kid I used to mock the names of the great French authors Gustave Flaubert and Honoré de Balzac. I used to pronounce Flaubert as "Flow Bert" and Balzac as "Balls Ache." I thought this was really funny and, needless to say, didn't read any of their books.
Many years later my daughter was given a copy of Madame Bovary, Flaubert's great work, and I borrowed it from her and read it. To my surprise it wasn't a fusty drawing room drama suitable for old ladies, but a gripping tragedy about a doomed relationship that is as relevant today as it was in the mid nineteenth century when it was first published.
The Fine Line Between Tragedy and Comedy
How do you take a tragedy, where the main character commits suicide, and turn it into a stage comedy? The very idea sounds offensive at first, but why should it? After all it's only a story; it's fiction, made up, not true. If Flaubert was looking down on us now I think he'd be delighted that his novel has been adapted for the stage by a cutting edge theatre in Liverpool 160 years after its controversial publication.
Two dramatic devices were used to turn the story into a stage comedy, both of which are new to me. The first trick was to have one of the main actors, Javier Marzan, act out his many roles with a thick Spanish accent. Just hearing him say his lines made me smirk.
The second technique was to have the Spanish actor walk onto the stage, as himself (i.e. not "in character") and talk to the audience about what's going on - as if they were in a rehearsal that's going wrong and they feel the need to explain the plot.
The Spaniard starts to explain the "framing device" they use - the play opens with two characters, rat-catchers, who are not in the original book - and then the other actors appear and start arguing with each other. Watching people argue can be really funny.
Their first argument:
- Javier Marzan: I just thought it'd be useful to briefly outline what's going on. Cos, let's be honest, the book is not that well known.
- Emma Fielding: Hang on. Not that well known? Madame Bovary?
- Javier: Well, I suspect people will have heard of the title...
- Jonathan Holmes: And that she had some affairs.
- Emma: Can we please not reduce it to that! ...
- Jonathan: No. It's an intimate study of a highly complex woman. And I'm not saying all women are complex. Some are surprisingly straightforward.
- Emma: Jonathan, I know you're trying really hard these days to support gender equality, but actually it's really annoying.
- Javier: And not as attractive to women as you think either. That's just from observing you in the bar after the shows.
- Jonathan: Shall we move on?
I've never seen anything like this - actors arguing in front of the audience - and it was a while before I realized that it was part of the (brilliant) script which was co-authored by Marzan. For a moment I wondered how on earth will they recover from this? How will they get back into character, but it happened almost immediately with an order for Jonathan Holmes to "go and put your wooden leg on."
In the next scene Holmes comes on playing the character of Hippolyte, a hotel porter with a wooden leg and moments later he re-appears as the town mayor. This incredibly versatile and witty actor goes on to play a blind man, the bailiff, a Marchioness, Homais the chemist, a sister, a farmhand, a footman, a boy called Juston, a Cure (priest), and two minor characters called Girard and Beadle. The cast of four play a total of 26 characters and it's remarkable how they manage to keep up such a fast pace, getting in and out of nineteenth century costumes in the blink of an eye.
It works. The play is brilliant. It's funny, sad, gripping and thoughtful. For me it has brought the novel to life and given it faces and personalities. I saw the play when it was launched in the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and have been thinking about it ever since. I want to see more by the remarkable Peepolykus Theatre Company who "lovingly derailed" this classic and specialize in mixing great literature and slapstick.
The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary is just finishing up in Southampton and will next play at the Bristol Old Vic from 26th April to 7th of May. From the 10th to 14th of May it will appear at The Royal and Dean in Nottingham.