A real-life husband and wife turn savage in Joanna Murray-Smith’s adaptation of Scenes from a Marriage.

When Paige Rattray directed Switzerland, Joanna Murray-Smith’s thriller about crime writer Patricia Highsmith, for Queensland Theatre in May 2016, she enjoyed working on the play so much that she found herself waxing lyrical about the experience to Artistic Director Sam Strong.

“He said, ‘Joanna’s just sent me [an adaptation of] Scenes from a Marriage, the Ingmar Bergman, I’ll flick it to you,’” recalls Rattray. “I’d put in a few suggestions for different plays to direct [in 2017] but I started reading it and I nearly died! I rang him and said, ‘delete every other script I’ve given you, I have to direct this play!’”

Scenes from a MarriageMarta Dusseldorp and Ben Winspear

What’s more, Rattray knew exactly who she wanted to play the warring married couple at the heart of the play: real-life husband and wife Marta Dusseldorp and Ben Winspear. Whether they’d agree, she wasn’t so sure as she knew how busy they were given Dusseldorp’s full television schedule in A Place to Call Home for Foxtel and Janet King and Jack Irish for the ABC, as well as the fact that they have two young daughters.

Dusseldorp and Winspear, however, were as taken with the play as Rattray and had no hesitation in signing on the dotted line.

“It was just serendipity really,” says Dusseldorp. “Paige Rattray the director is a really good friend of both of ours. Ben has worked with her a few times in Tasmania, and I got to know her that way. And Ingmar Bergman has always been one of my all-time favourites. In fact, Fanny and Alexander has to be one of my all-time favourite films. Paige was over and we were chatting and she said, ‘I’ve come across this amazing Joanna Murray-Smith adaptation of Scenes from a Marriage. It’s pretty wild you should read it’. So Ben and I sat on the couch and read it aloud together and we just went, ‘this is incredible’ so it was a bit of a no-brainer.”

The Bergman classic began life as a 1973 Swedish television miniseries, starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, which Bergman then condensed into a teleplay. It tells the story of a married couple who to the outside world appear to have it all: high-flying careers, a lovely home and two daughters. But when Johan, a college professor, admits to his wife Marianne, a divorce lawyer, that he has slept with another woman, it triggers a savage battle between them.

When the mini-series screened, divorce rates in Europe soared. But Dusseldorp doesn’t believe that playing a couple whose marriage is in freefall will affect her own relationship with Winspear.

“I hope not. It feels very far from who we are, and I think with our experience over the years on stage, we know how to draw a clear line. I think actually it is only positive, that our familiarity and our experience will hopefully mean we can try and do some really brave courageous things with it,” she says.

Dusseldorp and Winspear met when they were both working for Sydney Theatre Company, and have acted opposite each other in A Place to Call Home in which she plays war-damaged nurse Sarah Adams. In 2015, Winspear played her husband René who died after brain surgery.

Although Dusseldorp is now best known for her television roles, she is a superb stage actor. In 2009, she won a Helpmann Award for her portrayal of Queen Margaret in Benedict Andrews’ The War of the Roses for STC. Last year, she returned to the stage for the first time in six years to star in Andrews’ intriguing, slippery new play Gloria for Griffin Theatre Company, winning a Sydney Theatre Award for her extraordinary performance. The play was so intense that one night a glass broke on stage and Dusseldorp got some in her throat and couldn’t speak. As the blood flowed, some of the audience thought it was part of the play.

Winspear is also a fine stage actor, who also won a 2009 Helpmann Award for his performance in Baghdad Wedding for Belvoir, and who has previously performed for Queensland Theatre in Faustus.

“Ben was the associate director on Gloria so he and [director] Lee Lewis really sculpted me in that piece and I knew that working with him in the theatre was something I really wanted to do. [Scenes from a Marriage] is the perfect piece because I couldn’t actually see myself doing it with anyone else ­– nor him. It’s a really difficult, confronting, funny, savage, chaotic piece and I don’t know how you would do it with someone you didn’t know,” says Dusseldorp.

Rattray says that she found Murray-Smith’s play so powerful because “there’s a real honesty and a fearlessness in it. I think that is quite rare around marriage and love stories. I think the other thing that really stood out for me is that special type of cruelty that you reserve for people that you love because you know how to hurt them because you know them so well. That I think is something that isn’t necessarily explored a lot and it is a big part of this play. They can’t separate themselves from each other because fundamentally they do love each other and sometimes that is terrifying.”

At one point the play spirals into physical violence. “It’s a really difficult part in the play and I think that’s something that we are going to have to really delicately navigate in the production,” says Rattray.

“I think there might be a little bit of a tussle. There is definitely some physical negotiation that obviously has to be tightly choreographed because you wouldn’t want to hurt each other,” says Dusseldorp. “But this is the other thing about working with your life partner, you are physically so much clearer with each other because we understand [each other]. We’ve been breathing next to each other now for 13 years so I feel really lucky to be exploring this with Ben right now.”

“And I know Paige is such an amazing woman and smart and savvy. I think Sam is leading that company in a really bold, exciting way so I think all the ingredients are right. It’s certainly not a period piece, which is kind of scary that 40 years on, it’s still really relevant and totally recognisable – but I think that’s human nature regardless of what age we’re in,” says Dusseldorp.

“To me the experience of this play should be a place where you can safely consider whether you are falling into the bad patterns [in your marriage] or whether you are brave enough to call out when things aren’t right for you. There are some pretty hard questions asked, and also a look at how men and women deal with ambition differently, that’s a bit part of it. But there is also a lot of joy in there. It is entertainment. It shouldn’t be a dull, hard night.”

Queensland Theatre’s Scenes from a Marriage plays at the Playhouse, QPAC, November 11 – December 3.