Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic
Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 film Fanny and Alexander is arguably the epitome of cinematic excellence, but at its very heart there is an ode to theatre, a celebration of drama as a magical respite from reality affording endless routes of escape through the imagination. Telling such a story using the very medium it exalts is both tricky and an exciting opportunity. Adapted by Stephen Beresford and directed by Max Webster, the Old Vic rendition of this timeless classic holds Bergman’s vision in high regard and does not stray far from its tone.
Set in the early 20th century in Sweden, the story begins within the lively household of the Ekdahls, a big and eccentric family that runs a successful theatre, headed by matriarch Helena (Penelope Wilton). Helena’s son Oscar leads the theatre group with his wife Emilie as main actress. Their children, Fanny and Alexander, partake in the dramas taking place on and off the stage, but their chaotic lives, filled with comedy and fantasy, take a very dark turn when their father suddenly dies and their mother marries an austere man of the church.
The play follows Bergman’s blueprint almost religiously, which is what injects it with moments of brilliance. Having a masterpiece of storytelling as a point of comparison, however, also means that one is more keenly aware of the gaps in potential. For instance, the Gothic element could be accentuated further, and all the scenes alluding to magic, such as the children’s experience at the Retzinsky house, do not quite reach the level of charm that captures the imagination.
While lacking in some respects, this is a solid production that truly engages, and its long running time feels fully justified. The show is particularly impressive in the visual realm. The set design is cleverly assembled and simple structures are used to great effect. The plot is also punctuated with playful touches reminiscent of Wes Anderson, such as voiceovers filling the gaps in the narrative and informing the audience of every dish on the family’s menu.
Most cast members, unfortunately, lack zeal and oscillate between satisfactory performances and a didactic, sometimes flat, delivery of lines. This never becomes detrimental to the whole, however, thanks to a few strong elements. Penelope Wilton is the firm column elevating the group’s efforts, together with an excellent Michael Pennington as family friend Isak. The other stars of the show are the children (Jack Falk played Alexander on the night, and Molly Shenker was Fanny). They express surprise, fear and bewilderment as they observe the adults’ world, and Alexander’s psychological and moral journey is honoured thanks to a vibrant performance.
Considering the practically unattainable standards set by the original and the impossibility of escaping comparisons, Beresford’s Fanny and Alexander fares exceptionally well and ought to be applauded not just for the effort, but for the commendable result.
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Fanny and Alexander is on at the Old Vic from 21st February until 14th April 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.