Thrilled at intermission by the new stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from A Marriage,” I poured out my enthusiasm about director Ivo van Hove’s unusual staging to my ex, whom I had brought along. To my surprise, my ex felt differently, dismissing the show with a terse epithet: “White people’s problems.”
Ah, relationships: Why are they so difficult?
That’s the question Bergman seems to have been exploring when he created the story of the marriage between a professor named Johan and a lawyer named Marianne as a Swedish TV mini-series in 1973. The show, which starred Liv Ullmann as Marianne and Erland Josephson as Johan, was edited down to a feature film that was presented around the world.
In one way, the English-language stage adaptation written by (McCarter Theater artistic director) Emily Mann at the New York Theatre Workshop is faithful to the series, which was divided into six episodes.
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The first act re-creates the first three episodes. In the scene that Bergman labeled “Innocence and Panic,”Johan and Marianne appear happily married, in contrast to the couple who are visiting them. But when that couple storm off after an argument, it turns out there are tensions. Marianne tells Johan she is pregnant again, and they discuss, in a painfully awkward way, whether to have the child or have another abortion. They both sound ambivalent. “It’s not unusual to want something and not want something at the same time,” Johan says.
In “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug,” Marianne is angry – certainly at her mother, and his mother – but the targets for her anger are far wider, although she doesn’t quite understand what they are or why. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. We love our work. We have good friends. What is it? We spend lots of time with the kids. We almost never fight. And when we do, we make sensible compromises we can both live with.”
In the third episode, “Paula,” Johann announces that he has fallen in love with another woman, and he is going to move out.
I lay these out in broad outline because von Hove does something that both confuses and (in my view) enhances the narrative. His ten-member cast includes three separate pairs of performers to portray Johan and Marianne, a different couple for each of these three first scenes. Then he has transformed the interior of the New York Theatre Workshop into three separate playing areas – one room for each scene. Each member of the audience is assigned to one of three groups. The first group is watching the first scene, while the second group is watching the second, and the third is watching the third. When one scene is over, each group of theatergoers moves to the next scene. In other words, Johan1 and Marianne1 play their scene, “Innocence and Panic” three times (to three difference audiences) in the first act.
This contrivance results in two discernible effects. I was in a group that saw the three scenes out of chronological order – the third scene first, then the first, then the second – which for theatergoers not already familiar with the story, requires some extra work. (The program offers no guidance other than to identify the Johans and Mariannes as 1, 2 and 3.)
But it also means that each scene plays to roughly 65 theatergoers, rather than all 200, which achieves a level of theatrical intimacy that seems exactly right for this drama of domestic intimacy. Even the confusion strikes me as thought-provoking and apt – we are forced to figure things out, just as the characters themselves seem uncertain about what’s going on with them.
This was what I was saying to myself in Act 2 after intermission, when the room dividers had been removed, and the entire audience was sitting together in a circle around the greatly enlarged stage watching all three pairs of Johans and Mariannes go at it, in a tumble of mix and match: Johan1 tells Marianne3 that he has broken up with Paula. All three Johans seduce all three Mariannes (although not necessarily the same Mariannes with whom they consorted in Act 1.) This seeming reconciliation deteriorates in the next scene, when the Johans bring bottles of wine and glasses, but the Mariannes carry briefcases full of divorce papers. They argue (all three performers for each character saying the lines in unison) and then break out into physical fighting all over the stage. Given the immensity of the playing area, and our seating arrangement around the perimeter, the scene induced a momentary feeling that we were the spectators at a gladiatorial contest.
There are challenges in the execution of van Hove’s aggressively conceptual approach. The scenes in the first act are constructed (with a common room in-between) in such a way that the audience for one scene can hear the louder noises and shouts from another. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the past and present bleeding into one another in any relationship, but it is also a distraction.
Then there is the issue of the various pairs of performers playing the couple. There was an obvious effort to cast actors of different ages, which offers at least a subliminal sense of a passage of time in the relationship. So Susannah Flood and Alex Hurt (Marianne1 and Johan1) appear to be in their early 30s, Roslyn Ruff and Dallas Roberts (Marianne2 and Johan2) in their 40s, and Tina Benko and Arliss Howard (Marianne3 and Johan3) in their 50s. But there is otherwise no apparent similarity in these performers. Now I wouldn’t expect the TV movie approach of getting performers who resemble one another physically to a frightening degree. But it is difficult to discern much similarity at all; is van Hove saying something with this choice? The couples seem to have various degrees of chemistry; the most effective in my view were Benko and Howard. This the director may have tacitly acknowledged by having them represent all the Johans and Mariannes in the final scenes — scenes that serve as something of an ironic, nuanced coda to a complicated relationship.
Scenes From a Marriage