'This above all: to thine ownself be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man' Act I, Scene III, Hamlet
Having never seen the original version of Ingmar Bergman’ s historical period drama, I arrived at the The Old Vic in London with no preconceptions about Simon Beresford's adaptation of Fanny and Alexander. The appeal of turning Bergman’s 1982 Gothic drama about a Swedish family into a theatrical production is evident; all the components of a meaty drama are there: family feuds, the supernatural and an exploration of the battle between freedom and oppression. On paper it promises to be a success, but in practice it experienced difficulties translating to the stage.
The play was three and a half hours long; Alexander, played by Misha Handley (as well as 3 others), opens the production with a childish nod to its mammoth length- the audience laughed accordingly. It’s quite a feat, for any director- even Old Vic associate Max Webster admitted that his attempts to maintain the undivided attention of an audience for such an extended period of time would provide difficulties. I wish I could say that its length was necessary to its execution, but at times much of the play seems gratuitous. The first act can most easily be defined as ‘charming’, with Webster’s eccentric depiction of family life featuring an extravagant dinner party and Christmas festivities that conclude with the sudden death of father Gustav Ekdahl, played by Jonathan Slinger. This moment, which feels like it should be more poignant, directorially seems almost rushed; Slinger’s quick descent into madness doesn’t seem to quite render the reality of the devastation that such a travesty would inflict on family life, giving the impression that Beresford has potentially tried to cram too much into too short a space of time.
The second and third acts pick up the pace considerably. Through a series of set changes, Tom Pye’s transforms the stage from the Ekdahl’s family home to the unyielding, boxed residence of the Vergerus family residence. It is both exciting and aesthetically pleasing; the audience is quickly transported to the lonely, unforgiving environment in which mother Emilie, played by Catherine Walker, attempts to be resilient when faced with abuse and confinement. An evocative performance, both Walker and Doyle manage to bring to life the heartbreaking reality of domestic abuse, touching on a topic that ensures that the production is contemporarily relevant. The drama that ensues has very little to fault and its main accomplishment is that it is visually thrilling: Webster’s rendition of the supernatural sees a table on stage magically bursting into flames as Gloria Obianyo’s character Ismael delivers a chilling prophecy to a terrified Alexander. It’s undoubtedly exciting, although somewhat confusing.
What is most notable about the production is Penelope Wilton’s accomplished mastery of the stage. She drives the production forward with an impeccably nuanced performance fluctuating between a childish impishness and a dignified maturity. Amongst the male characters that seem to be perpetually searching for any kind of authority, the grandmother is undoubtedly the head of the house, providing the audience with a wonderful execution of an effeminate, yet foolhardy protagonist. Her relationship with Michael Pennington’s character Isaac Jacobi is also worth mentioning- a sweet depiction of platonic-friendship painted by nostalgia and tenderness, creating a lovely dynamic between two old friends that rings extremely true.
Fanny and Alexander is incontestably entertaining, and despite its length, the play (for the most part) managed to keep my attention. What was not clear to me was the real incentive behind Beresford’s choice to adapt the original to stage and whether he was able to add any insight or illumination to the classic that is still revered. The fact that this is a question I have to ask, for me, means that perhaps it didn’t - and the relevance of Fanny and Alexander on stage today seems dubious.
India Bluebell-Harrison Peppe