When I was a kid I used to mock the names of the great French authors Gustave Flaubert and Honoré de Balzac. I used to pronounce Flaubert as “Flow Bert” and Balzac as “Balls Ache.” I thought this was really funny and, needless to say, didn’t read any of their books.

Many years later my daughter was given a copy of Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s great work, and I borrowed it off her and read it. To my surprise it wasn’t a fusty drawing room drama suitable for old ladies, but a gripping tragedy about a doomed relationship. It’s as relevant today as it was in the mid nineteenth century when it was first published.

Most novels never get published, a tiny minority are successful and an even smaller percentage, a microscopic sample, remain popular for generations. These are the classics, stories that always stay with us. Not only is Madame Bovary a classic but it’s credited with being the first modern novel.

The Fine Line Between Tragedy and Comedy

How do you take a tragedy, where the main character commits suicide, and turn it into a stage comedy?  The very idea sounds offensive at first, but why should it? After all it’s only a story; it’s fiction, made up, not true. If Flaubert was looking down on us now I think he’d be delighted that his novel has been adapted for the stage by a cutting edge theatre in Liverpool 160 years after its controversial publication.

Two dramatic devices were used to turn the story into a stage comedy, both of which are new to me (as is writing theatre reviews). The first trick was to have one of the main actors, Javier Marzan, perform his many roles with a thick Spanish accent. Just hearing him say his lines made me smirk and reminded me of the ridiculous old comedy Carry on Abroad.

The second technique was to have the Spanish actor walk onto the stage, as himself (i.e. not “in character”) and talk to the audience about what’s going on – as if they were in a rehearsal that’s going wrong and they feel the need to explain the plot.

The Spaniard starts to explain the “framing device” they use. The play opens with two rat-catchers, who are not in the original book, and then the other actors appear and start arguing with each other. Watching people argue can be really funny.

Here is an extract from their first row:

  • Javier Marzan: I just thought it’d be useful to briefly outline what’s going on. Cos, let’s be honest, the book is not that well known.
  • Emma Fielding: Hang on. Not that well known? Madame Bovary?
  • Javier: Well, I suspect people will have heard of the title…
  • Jonathan Holmes: And that she had some affairs.
  • Emma: Can we please not reduce it to that! …
  • Jonathan: No. It’s an intimate study of a highly complex woman. And I’m not saying all women are complex. Some are surprisingly straightforward.
  • Emma: Jonathan, I know you’re trying really hard these days to support gender equality, but actually it’s really annoying.
  • Javier: And not as attractive to women as you think either. That’s just from observing you in the bar after the shows.
  • Jonathan: Shall we move on?

I’ve never seen anything like this – actors arguing with each other in front of the audience – and it was a while before I realized that it was part of the (brilliant) script which was co-authored by Marzan. For a moment I wondered how on earth will they recover from this? How will they get back into character, but it happened almost immediately with an order for Jonathan Holmes to “go and put your wooden leg on.”

In the next scene Holmes comes on playing the character of Hippolyte, a hotel porter with a wooden leg and moments later he re-appears as the town mayor. This incredibly versatile and witty actor goes on to play a blind man, the bailiff, a Marchioness, Homais the chemist, a sister, a farmhand, a footman, a boy called Juston, a Cure (priest), and two minor characters called Girard and Beadle. The cast of four play a total of 26 characters and it’s remarkable how they manage to keep up such a fast pace, getting in and out of nineteenth century costumes in the blink of an eye.

It works. It’s funny, sad, gripping and thoughtful. It lasts for two and a half hours but not once did I wonder “when will this end?” This performance gets it right – striking the difficult balance between comedy, tragedy and character development.

For me this play has brought Madame Bovary to life. I saw it when it was launched in the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and have been thinking about it ever since. I want to see more by the remarkable Peepolykus Theatre Company who “lovingly derailed” this classic and specialize in mixing great literature and slapstick. They are a theatre company worth following or, as the Michelin Guide says about the best restaurants in Europe, “worth a detour”.

The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary will next play at the  Bristol Old Vic from 26th April to 7th of May. From the 10th to 14th of May they will appear at The Royal and Dean in Northampton.

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A shorter version of this article was published on The Huffington Post.

Photo credit: Everyman & Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool.

 

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Rupert Wolfe Murray

Writer, editor and creative problem solver. I solve problems & help organisations communicate. Currently based in Scotland but available for assignments anywhere in the world.
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