Theaterphobes are often given to spouting the widely-held misconception that plays are merely dramas forever stuck in wideshot. That’s nonsense of course, as great stage directors and lighting designers pull focus and control an audience’s gaze at will. To do that, however, they need genuinely theatrical material. Unfortunately, Ingmar Bergman’s own stage version of his “Scenes From a Marriage” steadfastly denies its creative team that opportunity. With almost the entire evening spent in the equivalent of unchanging two-shot, the play’s cinematic roots are showing.
The adaptation by Joanna Murray-Smith cleaves to the original six-part, 295-minute 1973 TV miniseries, which Bergman chopped down to 155 minutes for international theatrical release the following year.
Delivering precisely what its title promises, the play consists of scenes from an outwardly perfect marriage in chronological order over more than a decade. Beyond the opening scene of Johann (Iain Glen) and Marianne (Imogen Stubbs) being interviewed, a dinner scene with another couple, one with a client of Marianne’s and two with Johan’s work colleagues, the play sticks with its interlocked but often warring protagonists.
Glen’s preening, supremely self-confident Johann, a leading research psychologist, smugly informs the interviewer (DeNica Fairman) that “We’re the perfect antidote to each other.” They don’t like confrontation but irony looms as Marianne explains she’s a lawyer specializing in “basically, marriage bust-ups.”
You don’t need to be a fortune-teller to see which way the wind is blowing. In the climactic scene before intermission, an unseen third party blows the relationship apart. The second half traces their divorce and continuing emotional entanglement over the following seven years.
This is not the first time a Bergman project has transferred from screen to stage. Hal Prince and Hugh Wheeler adapted “Smiles of a Summer Night” into “A Little Night Music.” But there the loss of cinematic focus was more than compensated for by the addition of Stephen Sondheim’s intricate score. The longer this stage version proceeds, the more you miss the drive supplied by the great lenser Sven Nykvist.
Without a camera closing in on them at crunch points to amplify the extraordinarily subtle performance detail, director Trevor Nunn’s stage actors are forced to emote and (over)explain.
Stubbs suffers most as her character is more of a victim. Her strongest scene gains from nicely controlled underplaying. Her character’s circumstances — she’s in a hospital bed after an abortion — do much of the work for her, leaving her simply to embody Marianne’s pain. Elsewhere, she’s led into over-eagerness as she illustrates Marianne’s neediness and confusion.
Only toward the end does Johann have any claim on audience’s sympathies. In the movie, that too is largely masked by the camera literally focusing on detail. In Glen’s hands, the character appears unflappable and chilly, which robs the relationship of abiding interest. The more they split and re-couple, the harder it grows to care.
Part of the problem lies with the faithfulness of the adaptation by Murray-Smith, who visited similar territory in her own play “Honour.” Holding so closely to the original not only means too many scenes of talk and too little action, but that numerous locations have to be laboriously established.
Robert Jones’ tastefully clean set of a cream, paneled wall of doors revealing a corridor and cupboards behind is versatile, turning into a wide variety of rooms sharing a Scandinavian wood floor. But the scene changes necessary to switch furniture and change costumes — covered by video footage of otherwise unseen children — slow down Nunn’s too-evenly-paced production still further.
The director finesses neat performances from the trio of actors in supporting roles — Tilly Blackwood is particularly strong proffering measured if unwanted advice to Johann — but the evening is a fitful one. Toward the end, older but only possibly wiser Johann asks Marianne, “Is it possible for two people who live together to tell each other the truth?” Unfortunately, the play’s long-winded search for an answer has run out of puff by the time it arrives.