It begins with Alexander, a little boy in a sailor suit – wonderfully played by Misha Handley at the performance I saw – stepping before a red velvet curtain and informing us, with mischievous confidence, that we are about to see “the longest play in the history of the world!” Not quite that. Stephen Beresford (who wrote the film Pride) has scripted a deft three-and-half hour stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s semi-autobiographical family saga and it’s considerably shorter than the original 310-minute television version and it’s brisker than the cinematic condensation that won the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 1983.
Fanny and Alexander is the Bergman movie that is loved even by those who tend to dismiss the Swedish master as a purveyor of soul-searching Scandinavian gloom. Not all of his films translate well to the stage. Ivo van Hove had far more success directing the merciless mutual vivisection in Scenes from a Marriage than he did with seeking a stage equivalent for the superimposition of faces that is creepily suggestive of a merger of personalities in Persona.
You can see why would-be adaptors are drawn to Fanny and Alexander. The Ekdahls are a well-to-do clan in Uppsala in the first decade of the 20th century who run and perform in a moderately successful theatre. We see them putting on a performance of the Nativity and rehearsing Hamlet. The early scenes in Max Webster fluent, beautifully acted production, are a delight as the red velvet curtains swish around sculpting spaces for the sequence of family celebrations that, throughout the piece, are wittily marked by mimed ingestion and servants reciting the detailed mouth-watering menus into microphones. Penelope Wilton is superb as the grandmother and head of the household, Helena – imperiously acerbic, but warm and wise, with a stage veteran’s insistence on throbbingly precise diction (“Pu-u-urged!”) but also a delectable sense of the absurd. She and Michael Pennington as her former lover, Isaak Jacobi, are exquisitely comic in their scenes of tender, ridiculous reminiscence. “He was holding a gun. I was holding his leg” she recalls, of the episode where he husband caught them. The men then became the best of friends
What’s hard for a stage version to capture is the child’s eye view of the adult world that is so brilliantly conveyed through close-ups and POV shots in the film. This became more of a problem for me in the second and third acts (there are two intervals) when the lives of Fanny and Alexander are turned upside by their widowed mother’s remarriage to the strict Calvinist bishop. A world of plush velvet is reduced, in Tom Pye’s fine design, to a severe whitewashed wooden rectangle. Kevin Doyle is splendid as the bishop, at once nailing that smug assurance that the discipline he inflicts is done “out of love” and giving you anguished flashes that he too is being eaten up by a remorseless machine that he does not know how to stop. For some reason, Alexander is more in contention with a Grim Reaper figure than in psychological intimacy with the ghost of his father (sensitively portrayed by Sargon Yelda), despite the fact that this version plays up the idea of Alexander as a little Hamlet. It can feels a bit muddled at times and resoundingly ghoulish.
The overwhelming impression, though, is that this is feast of show. Katie Simons communicated the humour and the pain with enlivening freshness at the performance I saw, Jonathan Slinger is on hilarious form as the womanising uncle Gustav Adolf who erupts in a fit of barking, impolitic vituperation against the bishop and, leaves the theatre hushed, near the end, with his quiet declaration of gratitude to his illegitimate newborn daughter at the joint-Christening party. Offering up a little hymn to fallible humanity, he’s the antidote to grandiose religious zealotry. The production measures such things well and gives the Old Vic’s anniversary year a richly satisfying hit.
Until 14 April (oldvictheatre.com)
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