Everything about John Nicholson’s adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! at Jermyn Street Theatre has an element of irony to it, but whether that's a strength is a matter for debate. This Christmas show promises to amaze and tickle us, but falls short on both counts.
This Christmas show promises to amaze and tickle us, but falls short on both counts
Directed by Marieke Audsley, this adaptation attempts to add humour to the otherwise bleak and patronizing commentary on 19th century French middle class life. After marrying the esteemed Dr Charles Bovary (Sam Alexander), Emma Bovary (Jennifer Kirby) uses various lovers and spending money on luxurious items to escape beyond the mundanity of her life. All in all, the production is underwhelming, trying to make a comedy out of a supposed tragedy with the forays into these genres doing little to make us care about the outcome of the show either way. It’s more of a commentary on the adaptation of the novel itself, begging the question whether it was completely necessary.
This show uses several devices from pantomimes in order to inject humour into the show, and whilst funny they become distracting and less gripping than if it had remained a straightforward drama. It also doesn’t quite solve the matter of the pacing, and like the life of Madame Bovary herself, simply drags, a problem even before the unnecessary repetition of scenes that occurs. This is more a fault of the writing than the show’s technical aspects, which do more to make us laugh than anything else we see.
Amy Watts’ set design grounds us in the French countryside, with the noticeably drawn nature of the detailing, which adds an element of surreality to the rustic setting. The use of mounted chalkboards around the set for the actors to draw attention to important moments or symbols is incredibly clever, and make the scenes where they are used infinitely more interesting. These sketches are often accompanied by Matt Eaton’s sound design that adds a touch of comedy to these moments. Eaton’s design fulfills a double purpose. It emphasises certain jokes by attempting a recreation of reality that we find funny because of the awareness that this is anything but, and changes the setting by lifting scenes out of the four walls of the theatre. Both of these purposes are executed remarkably well in jolting us out of our reveries and forcing us to pay attention.
The cast do a fine job both in encapsulating the characters they portray as well as leading fourth wall discussions about the play, whilst, although one-sided, give us a better understanding of the social content that Flaubert was writing about, especially for those who haven’t read the novel. They often give a lively performance that doesn’t quite match the tone of the show, but in doing so, fully commit to trying to avoid the depressing undercurrent of this particular adaptation.
The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary is unique in its adaptation of the novel to the stage, but its execution appears rather confused, and altogether it is quite tiring to watch. The phrase ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ is the best way to summarise this viewing experience.