A hidden gem tucked away in SW1, the Jermyn Street Theatre, is taking an unorthodox approach in its choice of what to show pre-Christmas this year. Running until 17th December, writer John Nicholson’s theatre adaptation of ‘The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary’ mischievously reinvents Gustave Flaubert’s novel about the tragically frustrated Emma Bovary. Obviously aware of the fact that there are loads of film versions of the story (but hardly any adaptations for theatre) Nicolson seized an opportunity here. Nicholson believes that ‘there’s more laughter in theatre and the collective experience is everything’ and having sat in this studio-like theatre amongst a laughing audience, I get what he means.
Directed by Marieke Audsley, the play begins with the cast speaking directly to the audience (they break character on some occasions, like when Emma stands up for Madame Bovary) and asks whether we have actually read the book. Not everyone had (including me), and I begin to get more intrigued about why Madame Bovary’s life ended in such a massive tragedy. We are told that ‘every tragedy can have a silver lining’ and the inclusion of two rat catchers in Nicholson’s adaptation buying all the arsenic that Emma wants is a theatrical framing device added to allow for a happy ending.
Emma Bovary is in fact a very passionate woman who didn’t want to fit into a box. Although she did what she could to find meaning in her life, she didn’t really fit into the confines of societal expectations of nineteenth-century France (I don’t blame her). Ultimately, Madame Bovary wants to find love, feel love and give love, but did she succeed in doing this? I sympathise with Emma’s desire for something exciting, beyond going for walks and buying dresses – ‘at the bottom of her heart..she was waiting for something to happen’. It appears that marrying a doctor is not the cure for her boredom, and instead, she has multiple affairs. When asked once about her marriage she responds unenthusiastically by saying ‘marriage resolves being unmarried’, like it simply just ticked a pointless box.
Jennifer Kirby as Emma brilliantly portrays a woman who feels scattered and unfulfilled, tragically frustrated and often bored with the dullness of everyday life. She is reckless I suppose and lives beyond her means, yet you can’t help but admire her bravery in breaking the rules and not doing what is expected of her. She may come across as broken, bitter and exasperated at times, but you are somewhat impressed that she is experiencing life with much more passion than her peers no doubt. Emma is married to the passive and lacking-in-personality Charles (Sam Alexander) and has affairs with handsome men she encounters here and there (all played by Dennis Herdman). The other two members of the cast fly in and out alternating roles in different attires. The audience is never bored, and the pace is fast throughout. Alistair Cope is particularly funny in his varied roles as Emma’s servant, Charles Bovary’s mother, the pharmacist, the nun, a cow etc – he’s a wizard at playing eccentric characters and has all the makings of a fantastic stand-up comedian.
The way the cast use the modest space on stage is very creative. The first time you see one of them drawing a tap on a little blackboard, you have no idea where this is going and then it becomes clear that this is how water gets magically turned on behind the scenes. The same technique is used to produce eggs out of thin air when they draw a duck and musical sounds when they draw a record player. They use toy horses on sticks in a riding scene and use props in such original ways sometimes involving the audience in the front row. The music adds to the emotion and drama, and I particularly liked hearing Edith Piaf in one of the scenes.
Although the cast and theatre are small, I like how the playwright has taken a risk with this and how these great actors perform just a feet away from the audience. I’m not surprised that hundreds of young actors and writers have started out at the Jermyn Street Theatre. It’s a small theatre with big stories and proves that less is more sometimes.
If you like a good debate, ticket holders can attend a pre-show debate called ‘It’s time to bin monogamy – Is the reverence for monogamous marriage outdated and damaging?’ on the 30th of November at 5:45pm. Lasting 45 minutes the debate will host guest speakers and welcome questions from the audience. Every good play starts a conversation and I’m intrigued to hear more.
The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until 17 December.
Photo Credit: Steve Gregson
Written by Jules Nelson
Flaubert is explored more at Jermyn Street Theatre in the forthcoming Promise Season with the debut play by historian Orlando Figes. The Oyster Problem tells the story of the French novelist’s catastrophic search for a day job. The Promise Season, which runs for the first six months of 2023, also includes the world premiere of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s stage adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roché’s autobiographical novel Jules and JimJim, Misha Levkov’s In the Net, Katherine Moar’s Farm Hall and the rediscovery of Miles Malleson’s drama, Yours Unfaithfully. Full details can be found at www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk