Madame Bovary on a merry-go-round

Despite my engineering background, when watching shows, I usually focus more on the acting than the tech. But after my first outing to the Residenztheater’s Marstall space, I’m suffering from tech envy. Their black box theatre is cooler than most main stages. This production of Madame Bovary has a (partially) rotating stage. In a black box space. No fair.

The rotating stage
The rotating stage. Photo: Thomas Dashuber

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem right for the play. The actors always seem awkward when entering and exiting (from/to underneath the stage)—which is sometimes used to great effect (as when Charles Bovary totters as the platform spins faster and faster, finally falling off the edge), but is usually just distracting. The platform also literally keeps the audience at a distance, as it prevents us from sitting closer to what ought to be an intimate show. Finally, it seems to sap characters’ motivation. When the stage moves for the characters, the characters are more stationary. We can interpret that as a message about inevitability, but, on a more practical level, it simply makes the show less interesting.

A shortage of motivation doesn’t mean a shortage of emotion. On the contrary, this production has, perhaps, altogether too much emotion. It feels less like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and more like the chronicle of a psychologically disturbed heroine. Obviously, Emma is deeply psychologically disturbed by the end of Flaubert’s novel, but part of what makes her sympathetic is that she seems normal—if a tad idealistic and inclined to dreams—at the beginning. Not so this Emma! As soon as we meet her, she’s crying and screaming. Sophie von Kessel shows remarkable emotional range and commitment, alternating between despair, elation, and sensuality, but I can’t help suspecting that a more understated performance might be more affecting.

Sophie von Kessel (Emma Bovary)
Sophie von Kessel (Emma Bovary). Photo: Thomas Dashuber

Albert Ostermaier’s adaptation of the novel poses difficult acting challenges. We start with Emma dying of arsenic poisoning and switch back and forth between her deathbed and the story of her life. This means Sophie von Kessel must snap instantaneously from, say, foaming at the mouth to, say, joyfully falling in love. While she manages impressively, the obstacle seems unnecessary: the un-chronological storytelling doesn’t reveal new themes or add emotional depth.

On the whole, this new piece feels more like it’s still in the workshop phase. It has lovely moments and talented actors, but the script and staging are often distracting. The play is interesting to watch, but it inspires neither sympathy nor deep thought.