The Massive Tragedy Of Madame Bovary – Bristol Old Vic ****

Javier Marzan (Rodolphe) and Emma Fielding (Madame Bovary) in The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary!

It’s a premise that on paper shouldn’t work. A loving comic derailing of Gustave Flaubert’s ‘great’ tragic 19th Century novel, Madame Bovary, from one of the foremost comic companies working today in Peepolykus, sounds like it either won’t be able to provide the belly laughs that its publicity material promises, or will stray so far from its source material that it bears little more than a passing resemblance the novel. The strength of the piece is that it provides enough chortles, chuckles and chest heaving laughs while staying impressively true to the source material.

Flaubert’s work was controversial in its time for placing on the page the desires and needs of a young women, bored of her provincial life and her decent but dull husband and wanting adventures of a different kind. Long before Moscow provided the pull for Chekhov’s sisters Emma Bovary longs for Paris and the kind of love affairs that she reads out of books. She falls in love with the ideal of man; the dashing viscount at the ball, the ambitious clerk who talks the theatre and literature, the rakish soldier who plucks what he wants and then bails; she bankrupts herself and her devoted doctor husband with her desire for the better things in life; before (150-year spoiler alert!) she takes her own life as her debts spiral out of control and all is about to be revealed.

It doesn’t sound the greatest barrel of laughs but John Nicholson’s and Javier Marzan’s adaptation provides them in spades, it is like a cross between the witty wordplay of Blackadder and the physical knockabout humour of Bottom. It doesn’t require you to have read the novel to appreciate the work but as in all literary adaptations, it becomes a richer thing if you know the original work. For the lazy student, it will give  a quick crib sheet, ticking off each of the key incidents in the novel and providing a framing device that allows the four actors to step out of character and provide a literary analysis on the characters’ wants and needs. You wonder early if this framing device is going to become tiring, one meta device too far, but they use it sparingly and it enriches rather than diminishes as a result.

There are some terrific set-pieces, the magic tricks as Emma relents and takes a lover is both a clever visual representation of the physical sensations that flood her body and incredibly funny at once and is unlikely to be topped as my favourite scene of the year. Its four performers serve the piece admirably, Emma Fielding using her considerable dramatic chops to ground the piece as the eponymous heroine, Nicholson and Marzan bring their trademark brand of verbal zaniness and funny walks to their whip-smart script while Jonathan Holmes shows great versatility and a good ear for accents in his 18  roles. Director Gemma Bodinetz ensures the whole thing doesn’t derail and the narrative remains crystal-clear from one set piece to the next.

It does droop a little in the second half and at 2hrs 35 is at least quarter of an hour too long but Peepolykus have turned a rather po-faced albeit important novel into a rollicking good night of theatre. It may even make you decide to read the book. Just don’t expect the laughs.

Runs until 7 May 2016 | Image: Jonathan Keenan

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