Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 realist novel, often described as one of the best novels ever written, is given a physical and comical makeover in this production of Madame Bovary from Masque Theatre.
Adapted by Rosanna Lowe, Madame Bovary was commissioned by Simon Godwin and performed at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate in 2002. For those familiar with the novel, the concept of it being transformed into the advertised “madcap tragedy” might seem an unusual one, but the play nevertheless stays true to the unhappy story, just looking at it from a more humorous angle.
Excited by the prospect of marriage, but soon bored of her provincial doctor husband, Emma fights against the limits of her social position as a woman – embarking on illicit affairs, and spending beyond her means – in an attempt to find the passionate life she feels she deserves. But spiralling debts and lovers who soon grow bored of her result in tragedy. Drawing all the ridiculous elements from the characters and situations, and placing them all side by side on a stage, Madame Bovary is a hilarious, rude and moving take on the original novel without losing any of the drama and emotion.
Four very adept actors (five if you include Director Alex Rex standing in where injured Lou Chawner could no longer climb) take on not only a whole novel’s worth of characters under Tamsyn Payne and Alex Rex’s direction, but also the job of getting the clever set where it needs to be – not an easy task on any stage, but a marvel in itself in the tiny space the Playhouse has to offer.
Julia Langley is outstanding as Madame Bovary herself, flitting effortlessly between the flirtatious and childish facets of her personality and bringing a real element of rage and desperation to the stage as the show headed towards its climax, cutting through the “madcap” to truly find the “tragedy”. Funny, passionate and charming, it was easy to see why men were falling at Emma’s feet, and Langley’s emotional portrayal meant Emma had the sympathy of the audience despite her actions.
Lou Chawner (equipped with crutches thanks to a broken ankle) had a few more characters to contend with, starting with Emma’s loving, but ultimately quite dull, husband, Dr Charles Bovary. Gently spoken but never quite simpering, Chawner brought a likeable Charles to the stage, taking every opportunity to find the humour in his obliviousness to Emma’s desires. A heartbreaking performance too, with a superbly acted and emotional closing scene. As Lheureux, the devious merchant, Chawner is sublimely sinister, taking on snake-like mannerisms as he peddled his wares – my only issue here was that the relationship between Lheureux and Emma potentially needed a few more interactions to show the intensity of the power he had over her in the novel.
As Rodolphe, one of Emma’s lovers, Beverley Webster delights in mining each of his lines for innuendo and his sizable self-importance (which is only rivalled in size by his enormous moustache). Opening the second act, Rodolphe and Emma share a beautifully directed scene where he writes to her, only surpassed by their first act’s hilarious frantic romping with the aid of a presumably quite sturdy rocking chair. Webster also takes on the endlessly talkative pharmacist, Homais, with ease, rambling on about subjects no one else seems to care about (manure, for example, and bodily functions one wouldn’t normally discuss in polite company), ignorant of those trying to get a word in edgeways. Webster’s smaller roles too, including the over-enthusiastic tour guide at Rouen Cathedral, are all a delight to watch, each distinct and fully formed despite very few changes to costume.
Mairead Kearins, like Chawner, makes her debut with Masque for Madame Bovary. Tackling an array of characters, including Emma’s father, a singing nun, and Justin, Homais’ crippled servant, Kearins adapted to the quick change in characters brilliantly. However, she shone most as Leon, the youthful law student and another of Emma’s lovers, portraying him as kindhearted and sincere, revelling in the romantic scenes with Madame Bovary, and had excellent delivery in her moments as narrator.
All the actors make the quick leap between character and narrator seamlessly, with it occasionally even being mid-sentence, which adds to the choppy, fast-paced feel to the production. Seamless, too, are the lighting and sound effects, in the capable hands of Megan Lucas. The production is filled with exquisite costumes, props and puppets, from the lifelike dog Djali (beautifully controlled by Alex Rex) to Emma and Charles’ daughter Berthe, and clever creative touches that help bring to life the complex story. It’s amazing what a small cast can do with a bed on wheels and some movable flats covered in book pages!
Madame Bovary is physical, naughty, laugh out loud funny and heartwrenching in equal measure. Not your standard night out at the theatre by any means, but a unique production that is very much worth witnessing.
Madame Bovary runs at The Playhouse Theatre, Clare St until 14 April 2018
Tickets: £9 (Concessions £8 / Members £7) available from St Giles Music, by phone on 07783531542 or online at www.wegottickets.com/masquetheatre
Suggested as suitable for 14+
Production: 11 April 2018, The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton
Rebecca is a theatre lover originally from Birmingham. She founded On Stage Northants in 2017, and is passionate about promoting Northampton performing arts. Can usually be found behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of them too. Bec also runs Rebel Peacock Creative Media.