Frank Vercruyssen, a founding member of the Antwerp collective tg Stan, directs and performs with Ruth Vega Fernandez a splendid adaptation of Bergman's Scenes of a Marriage. This is the last part of a trilogy presented at Théâtre de la Bastille in Paris.

How to stay true to a work while doing the exact opposite? That's the dazzling mystery suffusing the stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's film by Frank Vercruyssen and Ruth Vega Fernandez, a Spanish-Swedish actress he met while leading a workshop. The six one‑hour episodes shot for television in 1972, cut down to almost three hours by the filmmaker for its theatrical release in 1973, have been condensed into a two-and-a-half-hour performance. Forty years after Liv Ulmann and Erland Josephson, Ruth Vega Fernandez and Frank Vercruyssen play Marianne and Johan, the couple whose tribulations we follow over a twenty-year period. And one thing becomes clear: Bergman is a wonderful playwright, influenced by Chekhov, Ibsen, and Strindberg, authors he staged throughout his life. Any memory of the film soon gives way to a singular object that takes liberties with the original, examines the text from all angles, unfolds it, erases the context of the times, dares include comedic effects, speeds up the rhythm, finds staging solutions to render realistic, typically cinematic, effects while keeping intact the author's power, clarity, and cruelty.

Betrayal and fidelity – those are also the themes present in Scènes de la vie conjugale, six stages in the life of a seemingly perfect couple whose happiness starts to disintegrate and who ends up with lies, adultery and a separation. The first crack opens up on the big screen: on an off-white curtain is projected an amazing film sequence that's nonetheless still a theatre scene. Two married friends (the wife is played by Jolente De Keersmaeker, another founding member of tg STAN) vent their violent resentment in the middle of a dinner party with just the four of them. The discomfort is palpable, heavy, and through Johan's and Marianne's eyes the viewer becomes a voyeur. Until the camera rolls back and we see the sound boom: deconstruction, theatrical effect. Here tg STAN's (Stop Thinking About Names) familiar method is stretched to the limit in its most relevant aspects: exposing trickery to dismantle all the better the mechanisms of illusion.

The set is understated: a trestle table covered in bottles, a kettle, lamps and a coffeemaker, a couch that is moved about by the actors themselves, a clothes rack filled with costumes. The numerous costume changes are done in view of the audience, the acting is natural without yielding to naturalism. The dinner scene is mimed in reverse chronology with crumpled napkins, lipstick marks on the rim of a glass, and scattered cigarette butts in an ashtray. However, during certain crucial dialogues Frank Vercruyssen and Ruth Vega Fernandez actually eat pâté sandwiches: in the terrifying scene – when the rot sets in – where Marianne decides to have an abortion, or when adultery is admitted.

The two actors assume their parts and set them aside, state fictional stage directions to replace the camera movements, bring to mind high-wire artists listening to each other, waiting for each other, recovering in flight whenever they trip over a language not their own, and occasionally comment with absolute levity on their own actions. One gets captivated by this ‘journey through catastrophes’ as the philosopher, Pierre Zaoui, calls it, this life made up of cowardly actions, of power plays inside the couple, this impossibility to live together without hurting each other. And yet this imperfect couple that even comes to blows meets again in a house in the woods, like two children who ran away, united by a tainted, terribly universal, plainly human love. An exceptional performance, served by great performers.

Mediapart, 16 February 2014

 

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