Fanny & Alexander at the Old Vic is a fantastic reimagining of the Ingmar Bergman classic

Simon Thomson
Fanny & Alexander at the Old Vic

Stephen Beresford, writer of the Queer Palm-winning film Pride, has adapted Ingmar Bergman’s final project for the stage.

Condensing the Swedish existentialist auteur’s sprawling semi-autobiographical tale of a theatrical family, struck by tragedy, into a mere three and three-quarter hours, is a formidable task, but Fanny & Alexander is a triumph of joy and creativity over totalitarianism.

The titular characters are the youngest members of the Ekdahl clan, a prosperous extended family that owns and operates a playhouse in turn of the century Uppsala. Penelope Wilton is luminous as the matriarch, a former leading lady whose semi-retirement is enriched by her grandchildren, her well-intentioned meddling in the lives of her sons, and an ongoing flirtation with her former lover. Alexander and his younger sister Fanny have their boisterous lives thrown rudely into order when their father dies, and their mother marries the unforgiving local bishop.

A perfectly cast Kevin Doyle, brings a brittle rigidity to the bishop, who describes his love as strong and severe, and exemplifies physicist Steven Weinberg’s dictum, “For good people to do evil – that takes religion”. His stifling control over the palace stands in stark and unfavourable contrast to the bohemian anarchy of the theatre, and his puritanical insistence that “There is no salvation in fantasy,” makes conflict with the imaginative Alexander inevitable.

It’s equally inevitable that staging a play about a powerful man imposing himself on a young boy – particularly in this venue – would evoke memories of Kevin Spacey. The disgraced Hollywood star was the Old Vic’s creative director for more than a decade, until 2015, and it almost feels as though the production is exploiting theatregoers’ discomfort in this knowledge, because when a tense Alexander is lying in bed, and the bishop slowly reaches under his covers, the audience visibly steel themselves.

There is an element of supernatural horror in the play as well, with drowned ghosts ripped from The Ring, and a cameo appearance from Bergman’s most memorable character, Death. But this is tempered by a manifestation of Alexander’s departed father who – in a life-affirming inversion of Hamlet’s paternal spectre – counsels, “Be kind to people and be kind to yourself. Be happy.”

Tom Pye’s minimalist stage design shifts much of the responsibility for decoration into the minds of the audience, but the effectiveness of a strategically placed curtain in summoning a theatre or an apartment confirms the play’s central faith in the power of imagination.

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