Theatre to Long For

By Ian Shuttleworth

London recently has seen a crop of theatre with unusually long running times. I spend a lot of time in Germany, where they think nothing of a three-and-a- half-hour show, perhaps even without an interval. Here, however, unless it’s Hamlet or King Lear (and maybe even then), we feel obscurely that length is a torture. But what else can you do when you’re adapting a film that was over three hours long in the cinema, and over five in its originally conceived TV version? Fillet out everything that makes it worth putting on stage in the first place?

So, let me say that Fanny and Alexander is three and a half hours long (including two intervals), and doesn’t remotely feel it. You may find this hard to believe when I continue that it’s based on the last great screen masterpiece (1982) by Ingmar Bergman, who was seldom the life and soul of anyone’s party. But his semi-autobiographical tale (it’s Alexander’s story much more than Fanny’s), about a widow and her young children leaving a large, rumbustious theatre family in 1907 Uppsala, Sweden to marry the austere local bishop, contains much meditations. Yes, there are musings on mortality, love and general what’s-it-all-aboutness, but also on the relationship between performance and reality and a host of other matters, including some undisguised fun. There’s even – I kid you not – a fart gag.

Adapter Stephen Beresford has done a canny job, writing additional material to throw particular light on Alexander’s mother, Emilie (played by Catherine Walker), in her misdirected quest for fulfilment, but also in general to open up the focus so that the play comes over much more as an ensemble piece. Penelope Wilton gets her name on the publicity and turns in a beautiful performance as unflappable, unfoolable materfamilias Helena Ekdahl, but she would be the last to claim this was her show, especially with names such as Michael Pennington, Lolita Chakrabarti, Annie Firbank and Jonathan Slinger also in the cast.

Max Webster’s direction keeps matters fluid between scenes, and between this world and the realm of supernatural goings-on with which it overlaps. Even Mark Henderson’s lighting makes things look as if they were photographed by Bergman’s long-time cameraman Sven Nykvist. At the beginning of the evening, young Alexander (played confidently on press night by Misha Handley) declares to the audience that the show will contain ghosts, demons, camels and all kinds of wonders. It may sound rather like a desperate ‘Wait, don’t give up!’ plea, but it’s absolutely true. A long(ish) but gorgeous evening.

Until 14 April at The Old Vic, London SE1: 0844-871 7628, www.