Turning Flaubert’s classic, Madame Bovary, into a farce is probably akin to re-staging Macbeth as a song-and-dance musical yet that wacky, off-the-wall Bristol-based theatre company, Peepolykus, pull it off.
It has been a great week for comedy at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre. Last week they enjoyed sell-out audiences for Spy Monkey’s production of The Complete Deaths, ahead of its official opening at the Brighton Fringe, and this week the madcap costume drama, The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary!
Purists should look away now. This version takes the original story and, quite cleverly, spins it on its head to draw out laughs when there should be tears.
At its heart is a key performance from Shakespearean actress and West End heavyweight, Emma Fielding, who gives us a serious rendition of Emma Bovary amid a crackpot and chaotic revision of the tale.
There are only four actors in the production. Emma mainly plays the lead alongside John Nicholson as her childlike and naïve cuckolded husband, while Javier Marzan and Jonathan Holmes bring up the rear by playing everyone else. Holmes changes character so frequently that it makes your head spin.
The fourth wall is gone and the cast frequently address the audience as they go about telling the story of a bored and frustrated housewife who swaps her empty and lonely life by indulging in affairs and spending her husband’s money.
In its original form it is considered a masterpiece but there’s no denying that it is a deeply depressing read. So the laughs, of which there are many, are a welcome relief. I particularly liked the skilfully constructed chalkboard backdrop with its hidden doors which provides no end of sight gags.
But, amid the laughter, there are one of two moments of sheer brilliance. Emma’s Cinderella moment at a ball is beautifully done with an illuminated crinoline chandelier. And the final scene, played totally straight, is incredibly moving and endorses Fielding’s acting credentials.
This co-production – from Peepolykus, Bristol Old Vic, Liverpool Everyman, Nuffield and the R & D Theatres – reminds us that occasionally it takes the expertise of a clown to deliver a truly heart-rending performance.
This quartet may appear to be goofing around but the story, amazingly, loses none of its power or complexity by being played as a slapstick comedy.
The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! plays on the Royal stage until Saturday.
The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary
Flaubert’s 19th century literary masterpiece is effortlessly transformed into a slapstick farce that is funny, moving, madcap and poignant.