Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
October 17, 2018

The couple that seems to have it all but really, truly doesn’t is the jumping off point for Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. Originally conceived for Swedish television in 1973, it arrives at the Sydney Opera House in a production from The Royal Danish Theatre, part of a suite of celebrations marking the 100th birthday of architect and Dane, Jørn Utzon. Performed in Danish, it boasts Borgen stars Stine Stengade and Morten Kirkskov (also the Artistic Director of the RDT) as the disintegrating couple at the heart of the drama. The production’s twist? The traits and storylines of their characters have been swapped round in an interesting gender switch, so it is now Marianne who pursues an affair with a 23-year-old, not Johan, who is left to fret and putter around at home.

Stine Stengade and Morten Kirkskov in Scenes from a Marriage. Photo © Prudence Upton

In an introduction to the published version of his script, Bergman describes his central pair as “smug in a quiet way, convinced that they have arranged everything for the best.” In this version, we get that sense of assurance most strongly from Marianne, who introduces herself to the audience with a laundry list of flattering attributes. Johan is now the less confident, more reticent one, finding few words to describe their initially professed marital contentment. The cracks in the façade are glimpsed early on then, and what we get over two hours in Thomas Bendixen’s compelling production is a lacerating dissection of a marriage with all its mundane and fraught history. Husbands and wives are familiar strangers, knowing each other but not necessarily understanding.

Stengade and Kirkskov are both terrific as the leads, maintaining an exquisite emotional balance that keeps the piece from feeling overblown. All secondary characters are done away with in this production, leaving the warring couple circling each other like animals in a too small cage. The stark, anonymous set increases their sense of isolation and claustrophobia, with two chairs (Scandi-chic, of course) miserable reminders of a domestic happiness long gone.

Stine Stengade and Morten Kirkskov in Scenes from a Marriage. Photo © Prudence Upton

While male neuroses aren’t exactly marginalised on the stage, Kirkskov makes his anxious Johan come across realistically even as he keeps the audience laughing with some of his more overwrought pronouncements. Stengade is similarly powerful, her early jocularity and gung-ho attitude giving way to a kind of narcissism that still feels thrilling when exhibited by a woman. In fact, the switch in gender roles establishes a Marianne that feels, at times, shockingly unlikeable. This is most apparent when she claims to loathe their daughters, refusing to pay for an upcoming school trip and describing them as spoilt and unintelligent. Whether these feelings are motivated more by a sense of general ennui about her middle-class existence or from a genuine dislike, the sight of a mother emotionally disowning her children in such an explicit way still registers as transgressive. It is a strength of Stengade’s performance and this adaptation that such a sentiment feels earnt, rather than merely gimmicky.

It’s equally fascinating how these flipped gender attributes have pitched Johan at a time when what it means to be a man is coming under increasing scrutiny. All that is assumed to be inherent to womanhood – patience, emotional sensitivity and the capacity to nurture – are at first played for laughs when demonstrated by Johan but are soon positioned as desirable qualities in a male partner. This only reinforces how flimsy conventional understandings of gender are, and how easily they become entrenched in the marriage state.

Morten Kirkskov and Stine Stengade in Scenes from a Marriage. Photo © Prudence Upton

What must also be must mentioned is how funny this take on Bergman is, laughs spurred on by recognition, pleasure and shock. The tragic comes through in fleeting bursts, building to an expertly choreographed physical confrontation, all clumsy determination and rage, that results in Marianne hastily signing divorce papers. The ambiguous epilogue, taking place seven years into the future, sees Marianne and Johan coming to a tentative and tender détente. While other productions may leave you drained and avoiding the eyes of your partner, this one holds just that tiny bit more hope. Thoroughly recommended.

Scenes from a Marriage is at the Sydney Opera House until October 21


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