If you have read this incredible novel, you’ll perhaps be quite confused why Jermyn Street Theatre has chosen this to be their super cheerful Christmas show. Writer Gustave Flaubert wrote of the mundaneness of the bourgeoisie, the all consuming ambition of Emma Bovary for French luxuries and expensive silks- completely ignoring the whispers from her small community. The tragedy is held in Emma’s ever growing debt following her as she aims to impress her lovers with expensive fabrics grows overwhelming high, so much so that she has completely ruined her family without her husband ever knowing. In result of her decisions, she turns to the pharmacy and eats arsenic leaving her devoted husband and 7-year-old daughter to die in poverty.
This adaptation completely flips the table on the tragedy and parodies the characters, their choices leaving the audience in fits of giggles. Giving a hint of Mischief Theatre, each member creates this small town and grasps the audience from the very beginning in addressing us personally. Jennifer Kirby in the role of Emma takes her story in her stride, mastering the complexity of Emma’s overwhelming depression but also the farce in her manic choices to achieve her ambition. Never glamourising what she did but completely sympathising with her lack of freedom to explore herself, it was so joyful to watch this version of Emma where her highs are truly high and getting glimpses to how deep her emptiness feels. Sam Alexander playing husband and loyal devoted Charles Bovary brings a completely heart rendering performance of a person whose ambition is to bring other people joy. His tragedy is that he will never make Emma happy but plays the parody of a man in complete chosen blindness; stepping over frustration the audience lands feet first into a pit of sympathy for him wanting to scoop him up and stroke his head. Dennis Herdman playing multiple lovers and the ear piece between character and the audience, Herdman brings physical humour to the next level as he swoons around the stage with ease and confidence in his craft. Equally Alistair Cope, holding the heavy task of creating the small town with his multi role completely transforms the piece in every moment entering the stage. The cast was simply fantastic as a team, and individually incredible. They were on fire.
Director Marieke Audsley made bold choices in how characters were presented, exploring issues of female martyrs in literature and the very bluntness of addressing the audience but ultimately I believe every decision was perfectly received. Paired with fantastically bright and saturated set design (Amy Watts) we couldn’t lean into any tragedy until Emma wanted us to which then gave a different, more suffocating feeling.
The energy was something I will take away mostly from this piece, my only fallback is perhaps the jumpiness of the script in an already very terribly tragic novel- I felt unsure by whether we really needed to explore saving Emma Bovary in the framing device of two rat killers buying out all the arsenic in the town, then the characters stepping back into their actor selves to question why her living would kill what she died for. I’m still a little unsure by what that added, whether there was a strong enough statement made and what that related to in everyday life today. Personally, I did leave with questions about the script but perhaps my love for the novel and the performances of the cast made me bias and didn’t want to question further than I needed to but for audience members who haven’t read Bovary I don’t believe it was a clear enough story to engage and leave with a new message to think about.
Playing until 17th December, https://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/the-massive-tragedy-of-madame-bovary/
Reviewer: Alice Rose
Reviewed: 22nd November 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★