A little bit of context helps to appreciate the impact of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. It began as a TV drama in 1970s Sweden where it was blamed for soaring divorce rates. Unsurprisingly, the scenes from this marriage are not all happy ones.
Academic Johan (Mark Bazeley) and family lawyer Marianne (Olivia Williams) begin the play in Scene 1 as a professional couple who are the picture of married bliss, an ‘advertisement for monogamy’. We meet them in an interview for a magazine about happy marriage in which Johan smugly declares that their marriage is ‘in such good shape it’s practically vulgar’. He is charismatic and charming while Marianne seems every inch the quietly contented wife, nervously giggling and as enthralled by her husband as the reporter and audience are. Skip forward a few years and, by Scene 15 the couple are divorced following affairs and lots of nastiness. It suffices to say that the play has its own fight director.
So what went wrong for this hideously self-satisfied middle class couple? Somehow, over the course of the play, they go from loftily pitying the failure of their friends’ toxic relationship to becoming utterly piteous themselves. It is hard to pinpoint the failings but they are certainly here and heartbreaking. Perhaps they are too content for their own good, maybe they are bored. Their seemingly perfect life and marriage is attractive and enviable but obviously deeply troubled under the veneer of happiness: Marianne’s unexpected (and unwanted, by him at least) pregnancy and Johan’s affair with a much younger woman are merely a few of the straws that break this poor camel’s back.
Under Trevor Nunn’s expert direction, Bazeley and Williams feel every human emotion in this searing drama, adapted for the stage by Joanna Murray-Smith. Bazeley is perfectly cast as the simultaneously repellent and desirable Johan, delivering his devastating lines with relish and menace as he descends from polished arrogance to scruffy desperation. Williams gives a stunning and raw performance in the role of Marianne, thoroughly engaging the audience throughout. As a couple they have an incredible chemistry that softens the far from subtle plot to something terribly believable. The shocking twists make the audience gasp, hearts in throats. The supporting cast, particularly Aislinn Sands, do a fine job too, making the most of roles that are barely present in Bergman’s tightly focused study of his married couple. This really is outstanding theatre.
The set design is simple with a wall of white doors, a plain wooden floor and piles of furniture waiting in the wings. This lends itself well to the nature of Scenes from a Marriage which flits through time and space following the couple through their lives together and apart. Robert Jones’ design cleverly hints at their bourgeois taste and their life of ‘security manifested in props’ while allowing the characterisation to do most of the talking.
Scenes from a Marriage is, ultimately, vicious and depressing. There is very little hope to be found in the bleak destruction and dissection of Johan and Marianne’s marriage and one can only imagine the marital issues it could spark in the post-play discussions of the audience’s many couples. However, the play is not quite the condemnation of the institution of marriage that I expected it to be, which is entirely to its credit. It is possible that the theme of divorces is just not quite as shocking today as it was in 1973. Scenes from a Marriage may leave a lasting bitter taste but there are a handful of happier moments that leave its audience thinking that, maybe, marriage isn’t such a bad idea after all.