First Night: Scenes From A Marriage, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

A shocking journey through the cul-de-sac of marriage
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The Independent Culture

More than 40 years ago Sir Trevor Nunn began his career at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre. Now he must hardly recognise it. After a two-year closure and a £14m make-over and seamless extension, the complex boasts a splendid new studio space called B2. Remarkably intimate despite its vast height, it represents a stylish addition to the West Midlands cultural landscape.

Nunn has returned to Coventry to direct a cracking adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's play Scenes from a Marriage in B2. These snapshots of a disintegrating relationship, which began life in the 1970s as an apparently unmissable serial on Swedish television, later edited down for cinema release, were adapted as a two-hander for the stage by Bergman himself.

But in this bracing new version by Joanna Murray-Smith some crucial episodes and, indeed, several of the characters from the TV series have been restored.

Where Bergman cast Liv Ullman, mother of one of his children, in the character of the wife, Marianne, Nunn has cast his own wife, Imogen Stubbs. It can't be easy stepping into the shoes of such a consummate psychological actress as Ullman but Stubbs continually defies clichéd expectation.

Her face is more expressive than Ullman's, reacting almost instinctively to each critical moment as well as the many incidental events in between. From her self-deprecatory answers in the glossy magazine interview which introduces us to this cul-de-sac of a marriage, through each shocking revelation and bitter recrimination to the unexpectedly moving outcome, Stubbs paces her performance with infinite care.

Marianne's anguish is palpable when, mid-mouthful of sandwich, she's coolly informed by her husband that he's in love with a younger woman. With cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk, Stubbs appears momentarily paralysed – unable to swallow or breathe, far less speak.

Making Marianne brittle and bright as well as tender and vulnerable, as she stumbles naively through their 20-year relationship, Stubbs is well matched by Iain Glen as her marriage partner, Johan. In many ways Glen's is the harder role as we struggle to understand Johan's ridiculous posturing and emotional detachment. The character's callous exterior and patronising attitude make you flinch, cringe and suck in your breath in horror at his bluntness.

Robert Jones's versatile design, which looks as if it might have come flatpacked from the vast new Ikea store adjacent to the Belgrade, is assembled and changed with props piled on either side of the B2 stage. Each scene is separated by film clips offering brief glimpses of life in the intervening months and years between the couple's often fiery encounters before, during and after their drawn-out divorce.

Nunn's production is all the more powerful for the concentrated performances he draws from all five performers including the roles of the couple's two friends locked in a more obviously mutually destructive marriage, and the middle-aged wife living in hope of a separation. For some, the intense emotional landscape – uncomfortably recognisable and contemporary – may be too bleak in its stark realism. But others will surely find that, with the couple's eventual recognition of what might just be love, these Scenes offer a glimmer of hope.