Theatre review: Scenes from a Marriage - 'A merciless dissection on the state of matrimony'

The play that allegedly caused Scandinavian divorce rates to double comes to London in a production directed by Trevor Nunn

It's said that Scandinavian divorce rates doubled in the year after Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage was transmitted in its original form, as a mini-series, on Swedish television in 1973. His merciless dissection of the state of matrimony was held to be responsible.

Trevor Nunn first directed Joanna Murray-Smith's caustic stage adaptation at the Belgrade, Coventry in 2008, with Iain Glen and Imogen Stubbs, the wife from whom he since separated. He revisits the piece now in this superlatively well-acted production starring Mark Bazeley and Olivia Williams.

Neurologist Johan and divorce lawyer Marianne are initially seen on their tenth wedding anniversary being interviewed for a women's magazine about the secret of their enviably happy and glamorous marriage.  But there are already cracks in the facade – Johan's smugly jokey conceit; Marianne's anxiety to please – and we watch these widen into abysses over the fifteen or so “scenes”, spanning a decade, which take us through the bruising turmoil of loss, betrayal and violent recrimination to a point six years after the divorce. 

Marianne is more honest about the frustrations of marriage: “Doesn't it bother you that you will never have sex with anyone else but me?” she asks.  Williams brilliantly shows you a witty, shrewd and intelligent woman who has to struggle furiously against the pull of retrogressive instincts when she's pitched into neediness and confusion.

As Johan, the excellent Bazeley nails the emotional evasiveness and narcissism of this attractive s**t whose cruelty and weakness are exposed in the devastating episode where he announces, out of the blue, that he's leaving for Paris with a 23 year old.  He sobs all over the dazed and reeling Marianne before asking her to cancel the dentist and pick up his suit from the drycleaners. 

Stealthily paced and sharply focused against the elegant, white-panelled set, the scenes are interspersed with photographs and home movie footage of the couple playing with their two young children – poignant reminders of the precious family life that is being sacrificed here. 

The physical abandon and brutality unleashed by the forces of attraction and repulsion after the split occasionally suggests a Private Lives re-written by Strindberg, as does the final twist. I'm not sure that I believed in the latter. With the caveat that it may not provide the ideal fare for dating couples or for wedding anniversary treats, Nunn's production is to be strongly recommended.

To 9 November; 0844 264 2140