Emma Bovary is a very modern heroine: the original desperate housewife with a serious spending habit, she’s a sex and shopping cautionary tale, a one-woman boom and bust in these credit crunchy times. One could imagine her working the charm and the plastic today, though perhaps the social climber might now be transmuted to celeb twitcher, stalking the net for Cheryl’s on-trend accessories and new fall directions from Peaches.
Many have rushed to identify with her, from M Flaubert himself (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”) to Fay Weldon, the writer of Breakfast With Emma, now in production with the Rosemary Branch Theatre. She goes as far as to say that we are all “Emma Bovarys to a woman”. Leaving aside the vexing canard that there is a biological link between womanhood and shopping for a moment, she is indeed an Everywoman of sorts in the play, the agent for a proto-feminism, who has to deal with her husband’s views on women’s “tiny thoughts” and “fleeting passions”.
And perhaps some of us have faultily imagined that we’re made of finer stuff than our companions who fall asleep at the theatre, as Emma’s husband does (“I had worn too many clothes and the plot was complicated!”). There may well be couples in our acquaintance where one’s emotional thermostat is set higher (at Keatsian) than the other’s (more Keynesian). There are bits of Bovary everywhere.
But equally it is a credit to Weldon’s balanced conception, and Helen Millar’s performance, that this is not an Emma we can necessarily identify with. There are suggestions of bi-polar disorder, and of a hysterical nature warped by a convent school education. She is a fantasist, and rewrites the past (and present) to suit herself. Her daughter, the only offspring of Bovary’s ovaries “isn’t a very rewarding child”, and she is a mother in fits and starts only, when it suits her narrative of devoted parent.
Millar manages all the raging, seducing, rationalising and downright madness with ease, alternatively hard-faced and positively deliquescing with rapture. She even manages to look alluring in a frock so frumpy that surely fashionista Emma would have crossed the street to avoid it. She is well off-set by James Burton as lumpish cuckold Charles, who becomes less articulate and more klutzy as his wife reveals her affairs (both lovers, incidentally, played by Jason Eddy, who does Gallic smouldering outrageously well), and the titular breakfast wears on and wears thin.
Helen Tennison’s production skips along nicely, though one sensed on other nights the experience might be way funnier: the burghers of St Albans seemed to be alive to the tragedy rather than the comedy of it all. Maybe this pensive mood explains why, on this night at least, the consciously quirky use of the furniture at times felt groundless and gratuitous; laughter might have done the job of forgiving filler, that seals the cracks and anchors gesture to text. But as it is, we’re not sure why Emma conducts one of her scenes from half way up the bookcase, or why her mother-in-law exits into an ottoman.
Sometimes the visual payoff was good – a breakfast table tilting, dizzily awry – but the machinations to get there really cumbersome. And an odd timorousness set in: once having gone to all the trouble of hoicking the table to a kooky angle, with Chas Bovary squatting like an incubus at one end of it, Emma attempts to lay it, briefly, but really there could have been a maelstrom of cutlery, a storm of teacups. The surreality is stop-start, so it’s hard to tell, for example, why our girl acquires a doppelganger as the petit-dejeuner unravels, draped around the stage in various supine attitudes and, frankly, variously in the way. She did look rather like a a Victorian engraving, along the lines of “Virtue Vanquished”, so perhaps we were to read some sort of moral commentary in this.
However there are some great set pieces, notably the Agricultural Fair, with uncanny farmyard ventriloquism by the cast, and the night at the opera, where Emma and her lover lip-synch along to an aria while hubby snoozes, and loses. Both show and ensemble are immensely buoyant and likeable, proof that small scale can be big on heart and ambition.
And Emma, too, is likeable; her ruin is not so – well, ruinous in Weldon’s version. Flaubert punishes her with death, the death of her husband, and penury for her daughter; here Emma flounces off, perhaps to take arsenic. Perhaps not.