The first night audience was held in rapt attention from beginning to end by the compelling performances of the two players in Scenes from a Marriage at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester. It was a tour de force by RSC stars Alan Howard and Penny Downie, performing Ingmar Bergman's compassionate anatomy of a relationship as it develops over a decade.
They were totally convincing as Johan and Marianne, a Swedish couple whose marriage is slowly falling apart - playing out snapshots of their lives on a stark pine set like a room-setting from Habitat.
Their problems are the sort with which most of us can readily identify. As the play opens they are talking at each other a lot, but not really communicating - longing to be more honest yet too scared of the consequences to risk it.
Marianne is increasingly disturbed by how much their lives are dictated by other people's needs, other people's demands, and is struggling to break free.
Penny Downie vividly portrays the misery arising from her inability to do what SHE wants - even over whether to have another child.
The couple's sex life is unsatisfactory. Johan accuses Marianne of 'using your private parts as a commodity', rewarding him with sexual favours for good behaviour and witholding it when displeased. Not surprisingly, he drifts into an affair and the plot is set in motion.
But what happens to their marriage is not the real fascination of the piece. That lies in the detailed exposition of the complexity of male-female relationships. The play is like a dramatization of a novel by D.H. Lawrence. It captures superbly the erratic ebb and flow of human emotions - the bewildering kaleidoscope of feelings one relationshiip can generate. Warm affection underpins the marriage, but overlaying it are loathing, fury, tenderness, indifference......
The interest also lies in the growth of the characters - particularly of Marianne, as slowly, painfully, she frees herself from the shackles of other people's wills and begins to assert herself.
The play runs for two hours without a break, which makes considerable demands on both the actors' and the audience's stamina. Also demanding is the unrelieved melancholy of the piece. Though a whole gamut of emotion is presented the tone is always serious and rather sad. But if you enjoy thoughtful theatre presenting real life, 'warts and all', you will find the production well worth the effort.
Scenes from a Marriage will run until October 6th.
Chichester Observer, 6.9.1990.