Penelope Wilton in Fanny and Alexander It's the memory of Penelope Wilton as this lively matriarch that you will take away

Fanny and Alexander
Based on the film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; Adapted by Stephen Beresford
Old Vic Theatre, London
Until April 14, 2018
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Photos by Manuel Harlan

Published on March 4, 2018

Those who are wary of Bergman too often have a fixed idea of him derived from his anguished mid-period masterpieces, but his 1983 film Fanny and Alexander was of a different order. Inspired by his own childhood it was his formal swansong. Initially filmed as a 5 hour miniseries for Swedish TV (a 3 hour edit for cinema followed) it was designed for a more mainstream audience than usual. What emerged was a much more playful and accessible work than many expected but, nevertheless, it was modelled along the lines of a fairy tale and littered with references to Hamlet.

No other film better captured the glory of family Christmases past as seen through the eyes of a young boy – their sadnesses, their joys, their ephemeral nature. Like the best art this was totally specific and yet totally universal at the same time.

Set in 1900s Uppsala, the story centres on how Fanny and Alexander Ekdahl find themselves torn from the bosom of their large, loving family after their widowed mother fatally decides to marry the very strict local bishop.

The Ekdahls are a wealthy family who run the local playhouse and so an odd mix of the bohemian and the bourgeois. It is Christmas and the family celebrates in high style with luscious banquets, opulent decorations and boisterous conga lines around the dining table. We meet this wonderfully exuberant group who are presided over by their very theatrical grandmother, Helena. If it is Bergman who draws you to this production, it will be the memory of Penelope Wilton as this lively matriarch that you will take away. Underrated for far too long Wilton (now finally a Dame) commands the stage in a star performance which exudes warmth and authority combined with a tart wit. Laura Hopkins dresses her in resplendent gowns.

Tom Pye's designs also shine. He jolts us from the plush red velvet curtains of Act 1 to the bleached Lutheran austerity of the bishop's palace in Act 2, to the exotic clutter of the old curiosity shop of Act 3. That is run by Isak an old Jewish lover of Helena, now practically one of the family. The great Michael Pennington pulls off the always difficult theatrical challenge of making decency interesting.

Max Webster's fluid direction ensures the 3 hours 30 minutes running time is not a burden, but because he and the adapter Stephen Beresford ramp up the warm nature of the piece it does at times resemble one of those sentimental Dickens adaptations, rather than piece of Nordic noir it is. Bergman could do humor but he was never cosy.

Beresford softens the edges of some of the characters too much at times. Emelie, the mother, is a lot more confident and defiant here whereas in the film she is quickly subjugated by the despotic Bishop. This made the horrors that the children subsequently endured all the more upsetting because they appeared to be lost and without a champion. The sadistic Bishop of the film is not really matched here by Kevin Doyle either, who if anything isn't sinister enough. Beresford has him explain himself but it's like hearing the wife beater recite "this hurts me a lot more than it will hurt you". Making him a thoroughly bad lot, as Bergman did, worked far better dramatically.

Wilton is the lynchpin though and she embodies the beguiling enchantment which made the original stick in the mind.


Fanny and Alexander Fanny and Alexander – the boisterous cast

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