I remember the day we started studying Madame Bovary in French class, long ago. After I said: "Poor Madame Bovary, she just wanted to be loved and have pretty things," the teacher screamed: "No, no, no, NO!"
I've since learnt to appreciate Flaubert's sardonic dissection of bourgeois self-delusion, but I must admit that a sympathy for Madame Bovary remains. So I'm sympathetic as well to Fay Weldon's adaptation, which shows more pity for Emma Bovary than Flaubert ever did, without taking her entirely at her own valuation.
Weldon sets the play in the Bovarys' pale, panelled morning room. Here Emma, after a marriage of more than 15 unhappy years, relieved by adultery and sublimated sex (shopping), admits to Charles that she has had lovers and has run up bills they cannot possibly pay. After a hysterical attempt at seducing him into forgiveness, she carries out her repeated threat to take arsenic.
Emma's confession is dramatised with flashbacks in which she flirts with Leon the law student and Rodolphe the hard-up aristocrat, gives orders to the draper whose silks clothe her fantasies, and bristles at Charles's disapproving mother (an excellent Joanna Scanlan, who also plays Emma's maid). Through all this Charles - who, in Weldon's major change, is intelligent and authoritative, not the sheepish dolt of the novel - reacts with forbearance, annoyance, horror and disgust, and is finally shattered as he realises that Emma has laid waste to his entire life. However, the play retains plenty of Flaubert's icy humour.
Polly Teale's production for Shared Experience is splendidly cast, with Adrian Schiller's obtuse, poignant Charles and Simon Thorp's playing of the two lovers, the worshipful Leon and ruthless Rodolphe. But, as Emma, Amanda Drew strikes the wrong note for most of the play. The dual time-frames should contrast the young, giddy Emma with the woman in her mid-thirties, embittered and desperate. Yet Drew plays both in a manner somewhere between the two. Arch and petulant, giggling and wriggling, she both confesses her naughtiness and enacts it in a heavy-handed fashion. What should be heart-stopping moments of blasphemy, self-immolation and searing contempt (Emma says of her daughter: "She takes after you: How could I possibly love her?") pass without effect.
In the second half, despite Emma's selfishness and silliness, Drew conveys the pathos of her position, which, after a century and a half of greater opportunities for women, has perhaps not changed much. "I cannot live without love," she says, "and there is none available in this world." The word "available" sounds redundant and clunky, but in its suggestion of shopping, it gives the declaration a bitter twist. On the point of death, has Emma finally realised that love is as much a commodity as everything else?
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