Arts & Culture

Madame Bovary meets the Marx Brothers in comic “tragedy”

By Mark Thomas at

Review: The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary – Everyman Theatre, Liverpool

Gustave Flaubert’s tragic heroine Madame Bovary is not, on the face of it, the most promising subject for anarchic comedy.

Imagine this great 19th century literary character parachuted into the middle of a Marx Brothers movie, and you start to get a flavour of The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary.

The play has been workshopped and written by Peepolykus (pronounced People Like Us), actors John Nicholson and Javier Marzan, in collaboration with Hoylake-based Everyman and Playhouse artistic director Gemma Bodinetz, who directs this original and extraordinary production, getting its premiere in Liverpool.

Emma Fielding and John Nicholson in Madame Bovary. Picture: Jonathan Keenan

Emma Fielding and John Nicholson in Madame Bovary. Picture: Jonathan Keenan

It deploys just four actors. Emma Fielding plays Madame Emma Bovary, while Nicholson, Marzan, and Jonathan Holmes take on every other character in the complex plot, changing costumes and on occasion gender with bewildering speed and dexterity.

We are treated to a tongue-in-cheek collection of everyone’s favourite French classic songs, from Piaf to Birkin and Gainsbourg, and some of the musical set pieces are an exuberant, hilariously choreographed comic delight.

The expert timing and interplay between Nicholson, Marzan and Holmes is terrific. Marzan in particular is a scene-stealer, his expressions of wide-eyed innocence at odds with his genius as a wickedly inventive physical comedian and, it turns out, magician.

But Fielding has the especially daunting challenge of playing her full part in the fun and mayhem, while staying true to the central character’s journey. She does so quite beautifully.

Javier Marzan and Jonathan Holmes in Madame Bovary. Picture: Jonathan Keenan

Javier Marzan and Jonathan Holmes in Madame Bovary. Picture: Jonathan Keenan

Madame Bovary was a passionate woman trapped in a passionless marriage in a French provincial town, driven by her loneliness and frustration with life to doomed love affairs, humiliation, depression, crippling debt and eventual suicide by arsenic poisoning. Not the natural province of a comedy.

In this playful version though, vermin termination executives Nicholson and Marzan, having bought up all the arsenic in town to see off its rats, set out to save Emma from her fate. Can they succeed?

When West Kirby Today spoke to Gemma Bodinetz recently, she said the production aimed to give Emma a voice of her own in a way that Flaubert’s original novel never did. That is a major ambition in a comic production, and it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does.

There are moments of real poignancy, as the play walks the tightrope between tragedy and farce, and even as you laugh, you are led to understand Emma Bovary and care about her fate.

John Nicholson and Emma Fielding in Madame Bovary. Picture: Jonathan Keenan

John Nicholson and Emma Fielding in Madame Bovary. Picture: Jonathan Keenan

The cast step in and out of character, engaging the audience in a dialogue about the implausibility of their challenge. The story isn’t played for laughs all the way, but at its darkest and most serious moments, an outbreak of mischief is only a heartbeat away.

It isn’t flawless. This is a long play, and there are moments when it loses pace. A little judicious cutting might help the flow.

But this is an original, quirky, innovative, and thoroughly entertaining production that will keep you laughing along, but also has the capacity to be genuinely moving and thought-provoking. It would be a massive tragedy to miss it.

The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary is at the Everyman Theatre until Saturday February 27. Details here.

Verdict:9/10

Javier Marzan and Emma Fielding in Madame Bovary. Picture: Jonathan Keenan

Javier Marzan and Emma Fielding in Madame Bovary. Picture: Jonathan Keenan