You just know that when an adaptation of Madame Bovary includes the words Massive Tragedy and ends with an exclamation mark that the original Flaubert is not going to be taken too seriously. In fact, the cast conducted a straw poll near the beginning of the show to find out how many of us in the audience had actually read the original book. I couldn’t see anyone put up their hand, so I don’t think any of us were going to be purists.
I’ve not seen Peepolykus before but I have the feeling that the concept of purist isn’t something they would often take into account when devising a show. Four actors about play 25 roles; or alternatively, four actors are just themselves; when the programme says Javier Marzan plays “Javier Marzan” and Jonathan Holmes plays “Jonathan Holmes”, you might wonder if the £2.50 purchase price – relatively cheap though it may be – was worth it. The programme isn’t half as surreal and another-planet-like as the show though. There hasn’t been so much onstage shenanigans, addressing the audience directly and seemingly ignoring the play since Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards did Big Bad Mouse. And that was a very long time ago.
Mme Bovary is the archetypal village dweller who longs for the excitement of the bright lights of the glamorous city. She’s married to the kindly but passionless – and highly gullible – M. le docteur Bovary, and is always on the lookout for a bit of extra-marital how’s your father. I’m very sorry if I’m giving the wrong impression here – it’s what Emma Fielding, playing Emma Fielding, playing Emma Bovary, would say was the typical viewpoint of someone with a penis. Emma sees the role as being one of independence, of emancipation, of sisterhood struggle, of identity affirmation. But we all know she’s just sex mad, obvs.
Conor Murphy has designed a fantastic set, comprising of a number of sliding blackboard panels, where the scene is set by a cast member simply writing with chalk to explain the location, like “Yonville”, “Town Hall”, or drawing a gramophone to create music. 1856 was the year that Madame Bovary was published – so that’s an extraordinarily advanced gramophone for its era; I can imagine the company depicting Victoria listening to surround sound stereo through her noise-cancelling headphones. Concealed cubby holes reveal props, minor characters, and other rooms with a great sense of inventiveness and quirky humour. From where we were sitting in row C of the stalls, we could see that there were a number of large props high up in the air ready to be dropped into place. They piqued our curiosity as to how they would be used. A huge round chandelier swooped to the floor and doubled up as an amazing ball gown. For the agricultural fair, a flying pig loitered mid-air and an enormous rooster descended to the ground (or at least near it), stayed around for a minute or so, and then flew back up. All that effort for so little effect; never has such a big cock been so underutilised on stage.
Javier Marzan and John Nicholson have done a great job in adapting the book into this irreverent yet strangely touching stage version. Yes, it’s full of asides and nods and winks, apparently unscripted chats to the audience, even a pretend feedback session at the interval where Javier’s magic act wins the honour of being performed again. But the element of personal tragedy within the story still comes to the fore and without knowing the original story, it’s very hard to say where Flaubert ends and Peepolykus begins. We know the opening ratcatchers aren’t in the original because we are told so; but as the show progresses, all the lines between the source and the end product are delightfully blurred. I loved John Nicholson’s stupendously credulous Charles Bovary, innocently enabling Emma to have it away with the arrogant Rodolphe, a rakish performance by Javier Marzan. Jonathan Holmes’ “everything else” is a complete tour de force, rushing in and out of doors and coming back as different characters like Arturo Brachetti in a Feydeau farce. And Emma Fielding, playing Emma Fielding, playing Emma Bovary gives a really strong and character driven performance throughout – or at least until she starts playing herself.
Confused? I’m not surprised. You’ll just have to see the show to appreciate just how well it all slots together. A very funny and rewarding night – on at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton until the end of the week. That’s the end of the current tour but it may well crop up again soon in a theatre close to you. Wholeheartedly recommended!
Production photos by Jonathan Keenan