“More life, more love!” cries Fanny and Alexander’s doomed father Oscar, as he raises his last ever Christmas toast in this adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman classic. It’s the irrepressible demand of warm-blooded humanity, and Bergman’s semi-autobiographical narrative is crammed with appetite: for food, sex, comfort and kindness, for understanding, for creative and emotional fulfilment.
In the embrace of their tempestuous theatrical family, as if watching mayhem erupt around them them from the eye of a storm, imaginative, defiant Alexander Ekdahl and his little sister Fanny see such hunger send their relatives reeling in a dance that is both exuberant and dangerous. And they learn that even in the midst of vitality, death is always waiting. Bergman’s 1982 film, conceived as a TV miniseries, is lushly sensual, moving, thrilling and disquieting.
Since its milieu is thespian, it also has a heady whiff of greasepaint. Yet this version by Stephen Beresford never quite convincingly makes the case for the transition from screen to stage. It doesn’t achieve the rich strangeness of the original; nor is it sufficiently adventurous in seeking a dramatic language to take the place of Bergman’s cinematic vision. Max Webster’s production, while well-acted, is also a touch pedestrian. That’s not to say, however, that it doesn’t have its pleasures.
Adults, the child’s-eye plot suggests, may pretend to know what they’re doing. But they play silly games, and they’re often as bewildered as infants. In Uppsala, Sweden, in 1907, Oscar Ekdahl (Sargon Yelda) runs a provincial theatre, where his wife Emilie (Catherine Walker) and mother Helena (Penelope Wilton) are both actresses. When he collapses during rehearsals for Hamlet, and soon after dies, his grief-stricken wife turns for spiritual comfort to the ascetic, widowed bishop, Edvard Vergerus (Kevin Doyle), and later marries him.
It’s a terrible mistake: Edvard turns out to be a repressed, cruel bully, and Emilie’s children – particularly Alexander – suffer abuse at his hands in the name of loving correction. It’s left to the ingenuity and devotion of their family to save them from the untender mercies of this unhinged man of God.
Alexander (on press night an assured and charismatic Misha Handley), scampering in his sailor suit, leads us behind the red velvet curtains of Tom Pye’s set, into a bustling backstage world, and then to the Ekdahl family home, where Yuletide celebrations are in full bacchanalian swing. It’s playfully metatheatrical – but it’s also perfectly possible that the entire story is the boy’s own invention, given his penchant for weaving fictions so vivid that even he’s not entirely sure whether they’re true.
At the Christmas table, Penelope Wilton’s matriarch Helena basks in the limelight, a generous-hearted, zestily witty grande dame in tangerine silk. Flirtations fizz, not least hers with her old flame Isaak Jacobi, a Jewish moneylender and antiques dealer (played with an air of philosophical mysticism, elderly frailty and radiant kindness by Michael Pennington).
Black-clad servants step up to a pair of microphones to describe, in lip-smacking detail, the feast of delicacies on which the dinner guests lustily gorge. Gustav Adolph, brother to Oscar and their dyspeptic sibling Carl, devours a young maid with sexually voracious eyes. “We actors, we’re children, aren’t we? The time must come when we leave the nursery and the dressing-up box and grow up,” declares Helena, announcing her plans to retire from the stage.
There’s little sign, though, of any of the Ekdahl clan racing towards maturity, whatever their age. While Jonathan Slinger’s mischievous, volatile, handlebar-moustachioed Gustav is like a priapic overgrown schoolboy, Thomas Arnold’s sulky Carl entertains Alexander and Fanny, and above all himself, by lighting a succession of festive farts.
Among the frivolity, though, there are dark premonitions. Suspended doorways swoop and glide like images from a Magritte painting, the Grim Reaper himself lurking behind them. Later, after Emilie weds Edvard in a shower of blood-red petals, she and the children move into his home, a stark white box faintly reminiscent of a coffin. “There’s absolutely no such thing as ghosts,” declares Fanny stoutly, but she’s wrong. Whether they take the form of memories or regrets, of a lost, beloved father who returns with a warning like Shakespeare’s spectral King Hamlet, or even the Holy Ghost, they are an inescapable presence.
We miss the delicate intimacy of Bergman’s film – the way a close-up lingers on lips pressed against a cheek or whispering urgently into an ear, or the nacreous eyelids of a sleeping child. There’s nothing formally exciting in either Beresford’s adaptation or Webster’s production – nothing that exploits the story’s theatricality in any particularly fresh or inventive way. Sometimes the staging feels overcooked, sometimes underdone: that Death figure, complete with hood and scythe, seems a touch crude, as do the phantoms of the bishop’s dead daughters who, with their long black hair, look as if they’ve scuttled in from the Ring films.
Doyle’s Edvard, on the other hand, needs more icy menace; here, we get his psychological damage and twisted piety, but not his streak of sadism – though his poisonous all-female household, headed by Lolita Chakrabarti as his bitter sister certainly ramp up the horror.
What casts a glow, however, is the evocation of love – flawed, fallible people taking risks, making sacrifices and suffering hurts for one another – and the joys and consolations of fantasy. Even if it can’t match the film’s lingering potency, this is a touching family drama, and a profane hymn to dreamers, players and tellers of tales.