One of the most telling lines in Fay Weldon’s adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 novel Madame Bovary is when Emma Bovary’s lover Rodolphe remarks about their liaison, “If only Emma hadn’t taken it all so seriously.” This idea of scale and perspective is crucial to the story of the original desperate housewife’s triumphs and disappointments in a provincial French town in the mid nineteenth century. A black box above a pub is transformed into the Bovarys’ breakfast room (that transforms itself into various other locations) where scenes from Emma’s past are re-enacted on a scale that’s both intimate and operatic. Emma Bovary is a woman who is indifferent to her own daughter, and yet is doomed because she feels too deeply and invests too much in things that others regard as frivolous and inconsequential.
Breakfast With Emma was a flop for Shared Experience in 2003 but was given a second chance at the Rosemary Branch last year and was so well received (hailed as a revelation by the author herself) that it has returned briefly to the Rosie before a regional tour. This particular breakfast on the last day of Emma’s life when she decides to confess all is not in the novel, offering something a bit more spontaneous and unpredictable than a chronological scene by scene journey through the book.
Helen Tennison’s (a director with extensive physical theatre experience) highly creative and almost balletic direction is a masterclass in stagecraft that’s beautifully complemented by James Perkins’s set. An ordinary breakfast in which Emma tries to hide her unpaid bills from her oblivious husband Charles turns into something far more surreal as her past comes to life, turning the furniture upside down. Charles’s disapproving mother drops through the chimney to warn her little boy not to marry a convent girl with silly romantic ideas, Emma and Rodolphe’s riding lessons take place in the bookshelf and the slippery shopkeeper Lheureux manages to weasel his way in from all corners (and even the trunk). There are several exquisite set pieces, especially the high society ball that marks the pinnacle of Emma’s ‘career’, in which reality and fantasy collide in the breakfast room.
The cast of five deliver a host of passionate and sensitive performances. Helen Millar’s Emma could do with playing up the coquettishness and artifice a little more when trying to convince Charles that she’s the perfect wife, but she comes into her own when fantasising about dying a beautiful death as a martyr. James Burton brings out Charles’s oafishness as a man who sticks his spoon back in the jam after licking it and who kibitzes at the opera, as well as his vulnerability in his delusions that he is well respected in the local community. Jason Eddy is a virile and distinctive presence as the three gentleman friends who all embody aspects of Emma’s dream man- the dashing viscount who dazzles Emma at the ball, the idealistic young student Léon and the libertine Rodolphe. The minor roles are well filled by Georgina Panton as the maid Félicité who gets to answer back to her imperious mistress and James Hayward is a scene-stealer in his assorted cameos (I particularly enjoyed the verger in Notre Dame).
Fay Weldon’s Emma Bovary isn’t ruined by the insurmountable debt she’s built up; that’s almost an afterthought. She’s destroyed by the fact that she feels she’s unable to love anymore. This Emma takes the idea of being an incurable romantic to a new level, commenting “Disappointment is the difference between life and death.” And yet she has a point about needing to have a souvenir of something out of the ordinary to cling onto to make everyday life endurable- a worn pair of dancing slippers can be invaluable if they hold the memory of waltzing with a viscount.
Everything about this production is of the highest calibre and I feel it very much deserves a transfer to a small West End theatre. Flaubert might not have approved of all the liberties Weldon takes (the pharmacist Homais is only a very minor presence), but I don’t think even the most rigid purist could fail to be moved by Helen Tennison’s stagecraft. A beautiful achievement that’s simultaneously delightful and devastating. Rather like Emma Bovary herself.