Review: Scenes from a Marriage, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“It seems like you two are going through something of a rough patch”

Stripping away all the technical innovation that has characterised Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s last two visits to London, Ivo Van Hove’s take on Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is not just an extraordinary reinterpretation of a seminal classic but also one of the most exhilarating pieces of theatre you could hope to have the privilege to see this year. Utterly reinventing the space of the Barbican’s main theatre and toying with conventional modes of story-telling, I spent most of the astonishing second half in a state of near constant goose bumps. 

From the beginnings when we’re colour-coded by wristbands into three groups, it is clear something different is afoot. Jan Versweyveld’s design splits the stage into three rooms, connected by a central chamber into which we can occasionally peer, and the first half sees the audience progress through the areas, simultaneously witnessing a scene in each. Each scene features Johan and Marianne and the implosion of their picture-perfect marriage but van Hove has three different couples play the roles at different points in their relationship. 

Splintered, the audience experiences the story differently – from the first signs of crisis through the emergence of real problems to the inevitable break-up, the order is shuffled, our perspective altered depending on the point of entry. Our experience is also informed by the proximity of the three locales – the screaming match that forms the centre of one of the scenes is heard throughout the whole space but beautifully juxtaposed with a moment of rueful reflectiveness in one and a wry acknowledgement of the “noisy neighbours” in the other. 

It makes for a beautifully connected experience. Past and present, even future seem to co-exist as the three couples feed off each other even from their different stages, and the combined effect is to suggest that though these are scenes from a single marriage, they could be from every marriage, soul-searching, sadness and sandwiches lurking behind every door on the street. 

Alwin Pulinckx and Suzanne Grotenhuis’ youngest iteration have an aching lack of awareness of how serious things are, beautifully highlighted by the fact their’s was the last scene I saw and as the oldest, Hugo Koolschijn’s artless man-child in full bloom is matched by Janni Goslinga’s devastating quietness. For me though, Roeland Fernhout and Hadewych Minis deliver the most intriguing and engaging portrayal, of their mid-point, the balance between love and hate at its most delicately poised as her lack of fulfilment slams up hard against his immaturity. 

It’s thought-provoking and challenging stuff (make the most of the extended interval) which then explodes into a shattering second act. The pieces are finally united – not just the audience who are seated in the round on the stage but the actors too, the three incarnations of Marianne and Johan co-existing, interacting, even interchanging as the story moves to divorce and beyond. The sensational sequences here are just infinitely moving as emotional development starts to happen, accompanied by severe growing pains, a prolonged six-way verbal assault more visceral and affecting than any amount of stage violence could hope to achieve, though the actors do get to throw each around with vicious glee. 

Stretching out to nearly four hours, it seems remarkable that the ensemble manage to keep matters so enthrallingly unmissable. Even as the energy levels calm down in the final section, the intensity remains as high as it ever was as Goslinga and Koolschijn slowly move to a place of strange contentment. Her revelatory meeting with her mother achingly gorgeous, his moment of free expression a thing of fragile beauty, the final sentiments of the glorious messiness of life ringing true to anyone who has ever loved and lost. The kind of theatre that cannot and should not be missed. 

Running time: advertised as 3 hours 20 minutes (with interval), was more like 3 hours 50 
Programme cost: free 
Booking until 17th November (when I’ll be there again!)

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