Edinburgh Festival Day 10 / For better, and for worse: There is nothing like a rocky marriage, royal or otherwise, to inspire a playwright. Sarah Hemming on trouble and strife

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The Independent Culture
MARRIAGE has seldom received a blessing from playwrights. Ayckbourn could scarcely be accused of singing the praises of marital bliss, and were audiences to take Look Back in Anger, Abigail's Party or A Doll's House to heart, no one would ever make it down the aisle. Even Shakespeare offers few examples of domestic harmony after the tying of the knot. Desdemona and Othello are hardly an advertisement and the Macbeths don't set the best example to young newly-weds.

One show on this year's Fringe provides the icing on the bitter wedding cake. Marriage - a Health Warning, as its title suggests, is a less than positive diagnosis of the wedded condition. And rather than illustrate the drawbacks of married life by example, this highly-charged monologue makes a pre-emptive strike by having its protagonist warn a prospective bridegroom of the mistake he is about to make.

You've had enough of life? Why take a bride?

There are much simpler forms of suicide:

A length of rope, for instance, or a knife -

Far quicker, far less painful, than a wife.

A burst of spleen directed at the female race, Marriage - a Health Warning is based on Juvenal's sixth satire, translated from the Latin by Ranjit Bolt. Marital trouble and strife clearly makes for a more interesting evening in the theatre than domestic bliss, but that aside, what is the attraction for a writer in demolishing the state of holy matrimony?

'I think Juvenal was on to something really early,' says Bolt. 'Which was that people have tremendous expectations of marriage. They want it to solve their lives for them. And of course, if you go into it thinking that, disaster strikes - which is what I suspect the character sees the young man he is addressing as doing. Now obviously that's very topical because there is so much in the media and romantic fiction telling us that marriage is the ultimate thing.'

To bring the first-century Juvenal up to date, however, Bolt did have to do a little surgery on his satire. 'Obviously a great deal of mythological and Roman references have gone because I didn't think they would carry the points.' In Bolt's version, the married man can look forward to shocks of an un-Roman variety:

'What pranks?' you ask. Well: every Saturday

She'll carry half of Selfridges away;

You'll have to go from bank to bank, to raise

The cash to pay for skiing holidays.

With its litany of women's wiles, and its extraordinary vitriolic nature, Marriage - a Health Warning shares some territory with Michael Harding's Misogynist (being performed by Tom Hickey at the Assembly Rooms). The character in Marriage - a Health Warning, however, is less sinister and less serious than Harding's ranting woman-hater.

'He's preposterous,' says Craig Crosbie, who delivers the part. 'He starts out by saying, 'Look, don't get married because your wife might go off with another man' and he ends up by saying, 'Don't get married because 50 per cent of wives turn out to be murderers of their husbands'. And without someone to say, 'Shut up, you're wrong, you might have some points, but most of what you say is simply barmy,' he's unstoppable.'

Juvenal's character is not above using the cliche of all cliches to achieve his end:

Among the fiends with which a husband's cursed

His mother-in-law is possibly the worst:

She often helps her daughter to devise

That subtle asset-stripping exercise

Called married life . . .

He omits, however, to play one particularly strong card: the bridegroom's fear of the wedding day itself. Not so Flip Webster. In her one-woman show, Flipside, she whisks you through an especially dreadful wedding reception. Slipping from one character to another, she treats her audience to every last detail down to a gracelessly delivered glass of sherry. Like Ranjit Bolt, she decided to stage a wedding because of the high expectations of the occasion.

'Everybody wants their wedding to be perfect. It's supposed to be the happiest day of your life - and obviously you just cannot achieve that. So the tension that builds up is terrible.'

When we meet the bride, Lynette, in Flipside, she is locked in the Ladies, struggling to control the hoops on her wedding dress and blotching her expensive make-up with tears because her Beef Wellington has been inadvertently given to another wedding reception in the hotel - the vegetarian one. Meanwhile an aged relative is stealing the presents. Though Webster's show is a genial comedy, she hopes that it will make a serious point about the silliness of many weddings. 'People go out and buy clothes they would never normally dream of wearing, and behave in ways they never usually behave.'

Ranjit Bolt, on the other hand, insists that engaged couples can approach Marriage - a Health Warning without fear of being dissuaded. 'In a way, such a lunatic attack is the best defence of marriage. I don't think anyone would deny that a good marriage is unbeatable, but it takes a lot of work.'

'Marriage - a Health Warning' is at the Pleasance (venue 33), 60 The Pleasance (031-556 6550), 5.30pm to 5 Sept (not 1 Sept)

'Flipside' is at the Gilded Balloon (venue 38), 233 Cowgate (031-226 2151), 12 noon to 5 Sept (not Wed)

'Men are April when they woo; December when they wed: maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives.' Shakespeare, As You Like It.

'Courtship to marriage, as a very witty prologue to a very dull play.' Congreve, The Old Bachelor.

'I am to be married within these three days; married past redemption.' Dryden, Marriage a la Mode.

'Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious. Both are disappointed.' Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance.

'It is a woman's business to get married as soon as possible and man's to keep unmarried as long as he can.' Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman.

'You must come to our house next time. Absolute peace. Neither of us ever says a word to each other. That's the secret of a successful union.' Alan Ayckbourn, Absent Friends.

(Photograph omitted)