Madame Bovary at Bristol Old Vic

I’ve heard it said that Madame Bovary isn’t a likeable character. This may be because, in his classic debut novel, Gustave Flaubert writes about his subject, scrutinising her every move but never giving her voice, so that everything we know about her is from the point of view of an observer, without us being invited to tap into the emotions and thoughts of a complex human being. This is immensely unfair to Emma Bovary because everyone has a reason for their actions, however cruel or selfish they appear, don’t they?

Peepolykus have chosen to redress the balance by beginning their production at the end of the novel, with two rat-catchers who Flaubert never invented, one of whom is so perplexed and troubled by the tragic woman’s determination to end her life that he implores her to share her story (and even giving her the option to rewrite her ending). And so, we get to hear of a lonely woman driven to adultery by the tedium of marriage to a good but dull man, of a desperate woman thrust into frivolous debt in a sometimes successful but mainly vain attempt to lessen the pain of the realities of mid-19th Century provincial France.

But the key to this production is that one of the best known tragedies of all time has been transformed into a very funny comedy by John Nicholson and Javier Marzan. Joined on stage by Emma Fielding and Jonathan Holmes, the pair have created more than two hours of fun. Sure, they deal with the heartbreak and the anguish but they push the limits, interpreting brutally Flaubert’s writing in the most literal sense, twisting the lives of his characters sometimes into the absurd. Among Nicholson’s writing credits are the incredibly hard-to-beat Tobacco Factory Theatres’ Christmas show, The Light Princess, and the sublime Le Navet Bete’s Dick Tracey (there really is nothing funnier) so we’re in the hands of a man who knows what makes us laugh. Here’s a guy who understands comic timing and the importance of his audience getting to know the cast, regarding them almost as old pals. And, as the four actors flit in and out of character, chatting to us as themselves in the middle of a scene, discussing whether they should change the story or explaining the theatrical devices used, they endear us to both themselves and the characters they play. And none more than to Madame Bovary (the friendly and charismatic Fielding). Mon Dieu, the poor girl made a mistake, give her a break! Eager to better her life as a simple country girl, she’s a romantic who believes Charles Bovary (Nicholson) to be a huge step up the social ladder. He is after all, a doctor, albeit a mediocre one, she/we very soon discover. And anyway, what else is a poor woman supposed to do in those times? Marriage really is the only way out.

But the ordinariness of it all! Emma Bovary takes on a series of lovers, all played exceptionally well by Javier Marzan. The pair share scenes that have the audience roaring with laughter, particularly when they have ‘sex in the woods’, a few minutes that are filled with such magic (literally) that we all get to enjoy it twice. Meanwhile, Holmes takes on a dizzying number of characters (18, tells us with pride) and he spins between Emma’s father, the inn keeper, a nun, Charles’ mother, Justin … This makes for an impressive use of Conor Murphy’s spacious set as Holmes, with the rest of the cast, runs around the back of the biggest chalkboard you’ll ever see, a mechanism that allows the stage to change in an instant simply with the swirl of a stick of chalk – the four draw a real dripping tap, say, or a gramophone that is played on and off. Clever.

As Director Gemma Bodinetz observes, “Life can be an absurd struggle against a series of banana skins.” As humans, we are gifted with the ability to turn the devastating into hilarity, to understand the banality of life, laugh in the face of misfortune, turn it around, make it better. This is the ultimate success of Peepolykus and Madame Bovary is a fast-paced, highly enjoyable romp through the trials of a time in history that I hope we have all escaped.

Need a lift? Madame Bovary plays at Bristol Old Vic until 7th May


Image by Jonathan Keenan, with thanks

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