Madame Bovary is a novel that is synonymous with tragedy, but run-of-the-mill adaptations are never the name of the game at the Everyman.
“Lovingly derailed” is how the company describe their treatment of the classic tale, a delightful turn of phrase that promises comedy capers, but also careful consideration and much more than a two-dimensional spoof.
Peepolykus are well aware that they are unlikely to be preaching to the converted, and early on break the fourth wall to ask the audience for a show of hands to see who has read the book. And while this show may not be for the purists after a bit of period melodrama, it offers plenty of food for thought. The company is, of course, no stranger to the Everyman, as both a popular touring company (Spyski) and collaborator (No Wise Men, 2010).
The play begins where the novel ends, with the suicidal Emma Bovary desperately trying to track down a supply of arsenic. Peepolykus co-artistic directors John Nicholson and Javier Marzan take it upon themselves to create characters who stumble upon this unhappy scene and decide to intervene.
From there, Emma tells her life story – faithful to the book, at least from her point of view. Larks from the rest of the cast, however, increasingly overshadow the needs and wants of the ever-more desperate woman. Emma Fielding (as ‘Emma Fielding’), is a straightwoman to the rest of the cast’s clowns. She alone fights for the integrity of Madame Bovery.
“A French tart who has affairs” is how she is nonchalantly dismissed early on, and she’s certainly not the world’s most sympathetic character, but TMToMB! takes pains to examine the neglect, unintentional as it is, that drives her to such extreme measures.
The clarity of their storytelling – and well-considered use of music and sound effects – means that actually, Peepolykus could easily translate this production to a radio play. Their often groan-inducing gags bring to mind the madcap fun of The Goons. Yet the facilities afforded to them at the Everyman mean there is a wealth of visuals available to vividly assist in the telling of the tale (keep an eye on what might drop from the ceiling).
The set is blackboard, onto which the cast scribble locations or props at a second’s notice. The love scene, that lead to an obscenity trial back in the 19th century, owes more to Monty Python than Lady Chatterley.
Like Dolly Parton needing a lot of money to look cheap, the thing about Peepolykus is their work may look shambolic, but for this to work needs discipline and talent. Giving the impression things are happening that are not supposed to be is a skilful way of toying with the audience.
Of course, they need the audience on side for this to work – too knowing or too clever, and it may all be a bit of a turn off. There are a few slight wobbles where the excitement of this seemingly improvised chancing turns into a bit of a worry – what is going on? Is this deliberate? – but on the whole, it’s a ride that has the crowd on board.
Marzan has always been a charismatic and gifted comic performer, more likely than not a show-stealer. Here, he is among equals and the team spirit behind this extremely talented group of players powers this ambitious work. It’s funny, endearing, thought provoking, and shakes off the winter gloom in its own silly style.