In the run up to Christmas, is it desirable or even possible to have a physical comedy piece based on a domestic tragedy occurring in mid-19th century France? While the popular vote would probably be in the negative, the addition of a superfluous adjective and an even more superfluous exclamation mark to the title should sound the warning that Jermyn Street’s latest production is going to give it a darn good try. The Massive Tragedy Of Emma Bovary! is John Nicholson’s scattergun adaptation of Flaubert’s scandalous novel which keeps the tragic but introduces a high dose of the comic, lashings of fourth wall breaking and a (twice) rewritten ending which provides a cartoonish sensibility certain to either win applause or disdain according to taste.
The play starts much in the vein of Patrick Barlow’s work with the National Theatre of Brent and his celebrated adaptation of The Thirty Nine Steps, i.e., following an established narrative but undercutting any pretensions to seriousness through the knockabout antics of the four strong cast. There’s a framing device of a pair of rat catchers (superfluous) who beat Emma Bovary to the punch by cornering the market in arsenic purchase; one of them becomes her confidant as the wretched housewife tells her story of boredom, disillusion, affairs and financial profligacy. It should all be, well, tragic but with its rough (sometimes very rough) theatre aesthetic well to the fore it decidedly isn’t…until suddenly it is…. and then it isn’t again.
And herein lies my main problem with the piece; it simply can’t decide what it wants to be and in trying to be all things to all people it falls down the crack in the middle. Either be a tragedy or be a comedy; please don’t try to be both. Apart from when she steps out of role occasionally to offer up some modern commentary on her character’s agency, Jennifer Kirby plays the central figure dead straight and is actually blisteringly good. With its miniature dimensions there’s nowhere to hide in this venue and seeing Kirby up close with her piercing eyes and blazing inner life is a real treat. Personally, I’d like to see her in a straightforward adaptation of the text – she would be excellent. There’s also very good work from Sam Alexander as husband Charles who idolises his wife even as he comes to recognise her shortcomings; one might almost feel sorry for him. Dennis Herdman plays all of Emma’s lovers and makes a virtue out of the fact that they are all horses from the same stable – he’s also not a bad magician (that does make sense in context, I assure you). And a special mention for Alistair Cope who plays an 18 strong procession of bit parts (including a cow) which are very well delineated and threaten to upstage proceedings every time he appears.
The set (Amy Watts) has necessarily to encompass a whole variety of locations and this is well managed within the confined space available; the cartoonish vibe works well here. There’s a nice running gag involving miniature blackboards and chalk and props regularly appear at the end of a disembodied limb. Talking of which, full marks to the creator of the severed leg which drew an appropriate disdainful reaction from the audience. Director Marieke Audsley should have taken one of Dr Bovary’s (missing) scalpels to the overlong text but does a pretty good job in keeping proceedings bubbling along giving the tonal shifts which keep occurring.
There’s no doubting the prowess of the cast but as the three men often appear to be in a different sort of play to Kirby for much of the time it’s all a bit unsatisfactory. The constant switches between comedy and tragedy ultimately become wearing especially in a tedious repetition of the end of Act One at the start of Act Two. The second half does, indeed, become increasingly darker in tone but, as the finale approaches, the script can’t help but burst out into comic business again and goes for a full on jolly ending; to be fair there is a warning that this will be the case at the top of the show. Whether this enhances proceedings or negates Flaubert’s messages will be entirely a matter of taste – unfortunately it wasn’t to mine.