This play asks many questions about souring relationships, especially whether you can pin point the exact moment it went wrong. For this couple the answer is clearly yes – never go to see A Doll’s House! I suffered it for 2 years at A-Level, both in English Literature and Theatre Studies; forced to repeatedly endure Juliette Stephenson playing the obnoxious Nora and her immensely tedious life. And yes, I know there is a highly acclaimed version in the West End at the moment but nothing on earth will drag me there! Going to see this play is absolutely grounds for divorce, so it was no surprise that this was the final straw for Marianne and Johan.
Scenes from a Marriage begins with an immensely smug middle-class couple being interviewed for a woman’s magazine on how they’ve made their 10-year marriage work. He’s an academic scientist, she’s a divorce lawyer and they’re convinced they will always be together. Over the next few hours, we see their relationship unravel, with ‘scenes’ occurring hours to years apart, as the marriage crumbles under the weight of familiarity, contempt, boredom and infidelity. In many ways this is an unfortunately clichéd affair, Marianne is highly emotional, nagging and constantly wanting to unpick the fabric of their relationship, whilst Johan is laid back, repressed and never thinks about his life too deeply. Some of the plot devices are hopelessly predictable too – of course he has a mid-life crisis affair with a younger woman, starts wearing leather jackets etc etc. And it seems a little unlikely that they lived perfectly for 10 years before the cracks start to show.
However, that aside, this is by no means a bad play to watch; the acting from Olivia Williams and Mark Bazeley, which takes up about 95% of the dialogue, is really superb and you are drawn into their life, almost fascinated as they begin to destroy each other and re-emerge as somewhat altered people. It’s not easy to watch, it’s intense, depressing and discomforting at times, and there is one very violent scene which seemed as though it would spill off the stage. I sat in the very front row (a bargain at only £15) which puts you almost frighteningly close to the action, and able to see up the actors noses at the front of the stage. It also has the hardest working stage hands in London, with around 15 scene changes – the stage has no mechanics or fly system so the audience are distracted by projected home videos of the couple while the people in black lug furniture about. There are, of course, similarities with Private Lives which I previously reviewed, and if you missed the excellent Stephens / Chancellor version which has just closed, then this is in the same sphere. Although this Ingmar Bergman play, directed by Trevor Nunn, has none of the whimsy of Coward, Marianne and Johan are, in some ways, a version of Elyot and Amanda with more ordinary lives. It’s not a perfect play, but the acting makes up for it – and my God it’s better than A Doll’s House.
Scenes from a Marriage is at the St James’s Theatre until 9 November.