NOTE: This review dates from September 2003 and an earlier tour stop for this production.
All the characters in Flaubert's Madame Bovary are weak, selfish, spoilt people with small minds and small lives. Nevertheless the story remains popular and I was fascinated to see if Fay Weldon's adaptation could finally engage me.
Madame Bovary, Emma, played by Amanda Drew, is a farmer's daughter who did well to marry a doctor (Charles, played by Adrian Schiller). But instead of finding herself whisked off to the 'Mills and Boon' life of her dreams Emma realises her husband is a plodding, dull, unambitious man, happy to accept a failing practice in a small town.
The claustrophobia of a woman's role in society is compounded for Emma by the small village mentality of her neighbours, her lack-lustre home and boring life with her husband and small daughter. Emma therefore seeks to create a secondary life for herself spending extravagantly and having affairs. But her lovers lose interest, she cannot run away because of her daughter and her bills come home to roost. Seeing no way out she seeks in one day to share her burden of guilt with her husband and commit a romantic suicide. But her husband, who loves her very much, is destroyed by the news and rejects her.
In all, the play runs around two hours with Emma and Charles on stage almost all the time, both giving good performances that I'm sure will only strengthen as the tour progresses. Their interactions are punctuated by flashbacks and other characters, most notably the maid Felicite (played by Joanna Scanlan), Lheureux (Maxwell Hutcheon) and Leon (Simon Thorp). With the exception of Schiller the actors are required to double up as the remaining characters and this generally works well.
The love-making scenes show Shared Experience's expertise in physical theatre and are very well portrayed. Scanlan's maid is well pointed and provides good contrast to the stiffness and high emotion of the main characters.
The play is set in the Bovary breakfast room, the solid, stylish design gives a true feeling of 'other places' just beyond the doors. Indeed I was impressed by the overall design; lights, props and costume working together to create a strong impression of period.
I do not like the use of music here to underline action, and sitting towards the sides of the auditorium it makes hearing dialogue harder. The theatrical experience is about actors communicating emotions to an audience, and techniques suited to film and TV interfere with that experience.
The popularity of the novel remains something of a mystery to me but this is an excellent adaptation, more accessible than the original and a good production. Was I engaged? I can't honestly say that I was drawn in, I felt like a watcher. But I certainly enjoyed the experience.
- Robert Iles (reviewed at Oxford Playhouse)