Madame Bovary

How would Emma Bovary, the original desperate housewife and woman of intellect, adapt to the 21st century? Steve Lee asks the director of a new play

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Stage adaptations of classic novels are a double-edged sword. Familiarity with both storyline and protagonists is surely an aid to those all-important ticket sales, yet compressing often expansive plots and myriad characters into a workable play is a complex task indeed.

The task is one tackled with relish by director Gemma Bodinetz. In conjunction with Peepolykus, one of the country’s most innovative theatre companies, Bodinetz has opted to increase the challenge by reworking Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a sweeping 19th century epic – utilising a cast of just four.

“We’ve made the fact that the production company are struggling to put on the performance an integral part of the play,” Bodinetz explains. “At one point they actually come out of character to partially explain their problems, so this huge task Peepolykus have set themselves by using such a small cast is a large part of what makes it so funny.”

Fans of the novel will know that there is humour aplenty in the original text – though often of the dry or ironic brand. It’s the story of Emma Bovary, a dissatisfied doctor’s wife who escapes her life through affairs and extravagance. Humour plays a large part in The Massive Tragedy Of Madame Bovary! too, but the director is keen to express how serious subjects addressed by the source novel have not only been tackled, but also treated to a contemporary spin.

“Obviously Flaubert was a man of his time, and in that time feminism, post-natal depression, bipolar disorder and the right for women to have a sexual appetite were all things given little thought and without terminology to describe them. As a result, reading the book is as if Flaubert has simply put a camera on Madame Bovary, with little context, and deciding whether he’s sympathetic towards her or not is rather difficult.

“So we’re trying to ask how this woman – who has manic depressive qualities, is clearly married to the wrong man and basically expected to embroider all day – would react in society when she possesses such incredible imagination and intelligence.”

Given the necessary plot simplification, self-inflicted restrictions on cast size and the decision to re-contextualise the original novel for the 21st century, you have to wonder if the theatrical audience will find that all-important space required for personal interpretation somewhat diminished.

Are Peepolykus and Bodinetz telling people what to think about the often ambiguous, frequently nebulous trials and tribulations of Emma Bovary?

“A bad play tells you what to think, a good play leaves you asking questions about both yourself and society,” counters Bodinetz. “We’re really posing the question about a person’s right to lead their own life, whether that be 150 years ago or now.

“We’re also shining a spotlight on a general inability to live in the moment, at people who are constantly looking into the future towards what they perceive will be a better life. This is what Emma does by living in her fantasy world. We want this play to have an almost universal humanity.”

Summarising The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! as “funny, yet somehow tender,” the director, who doubles as artistic director for the Everyman and Playhouse theatres, appears to have created an ambitious, modern and wholly individual reworking of that most 19th century of novels.

The Massive Tragedy Of Madame Bovary! 5-27 February, Liverpool Everyman

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Madame Bovary

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