On the day he slams the front door, wear red for danger

Kate Kellaway asks Penny Downie and Alan Howard about quarrels, secrets and emotional climaxes as Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage comes to London.

"Marriage must be a verb, not a noun - it must be active," says Penny Downie, who plays Marianne in Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage.

She looks like an untidy angel; talks as if throwing assorted objects into a handbag at speed, occasionally slows, as if a small censor were prodding her in the ribs. She describes - exhuberantly - scenes from her own marriage to the playwright Nick Dear who lives up to his surname, helping her with their five-month-old son, Finnegan.

Alan Howard plays Johan and he, like Penny Downie, is married to a writer. Towards the end of Scenes from a Marriage Johan says to his wife: "You should write a bloody novel." This is something Alan Howard need not suggest to Sally Beauman. Her novels are best-sellers.

The role of Johan marks Alan Howard's return to the stage (after five years away in films), in order to spend more time with his son. He looks tired, thin, manner forthcoming, hair receding, voice languid but alert.

Alan Howard and Penny Downie

Downie and Howard both recognise themselves in Bergman's play. So do their audiences. Howard says that at Chichester - where the production began - couples would either edge away or hold on to each other ever more tightly.

The television series of Scenes from a Marriage was harrowing and anyone who saw it will remember - even if they have forgotten everything else - the sad face of Liv Ullman, failing to hide her beauty behind specs.

Penny Downie is not haunted by this image; she did not see the television series and stresses that the theatre version is funny. One reads it funeral-faced but in performance, Howard assures us, we will "laugh in recognition" and recognise the rows.

Rows in real life often have the quality of bad theatre - crude lines, amateur anger. Bergman's achievement is to make rows of this sort good convincing theatre. And his sources? Five marriages and a lifetime living what takes just over two hours to perform.

Bergman decreed that Rita Russek, a German actress who has played Marianne herself, should direct this production. Penny Downie describes her as "a powerhouse". Rehearsing with Rita was tough: "Forget the technique - just give it to me," she would say.

They worked hard on the translation. Alan Howard explains: "The emotional temperatures of the English and the German languages are different." In English we arrive at our emotional climaxes by B-roads: "an ironic remark, then suddenly, the knife is in." The German approach sounds more like a tank in top gear. But the emotion at the end - in whatever language - is redemptive. It's also a compromise.

Compromise, the very word is lacklustre. But Penny Downie says that Bergman shows how finding ways of coping is as much as most of us can hope for - and an honourable aim. The play is about "recognising imperfection".

It is not, as Alan Howard points out, about silent forbearance. He suggests that love can be a great silencer. Marianne and Johan's love atrophies because they never quarrel. What's needed is a sort of emotional can-opener for what Howard terms the "cans of beans".

Penny Downie goes further and says it's hard to accept people as they are, but harder still to allow them to change. Bergman signals inner change by what she calls "colour coding". Marianne's wardrobe "goes red" after Johan leaves her - which ought to serve as a warning. Johan, after his affair with the 23-year-old (imagined by Penny as a punk with Doc Martens and green hair) comes back wearing a leather jacket, intended to be trendy but looking, as Howard says, "as square as all get out".

If he looks square, he sounds, by contrast to Marianne, flat. Johan is resolutely practical; Marianne irresolute and dreamy. Howard has a charming habit of talking as if there were two people involved in an endless discussion in his head. He explains the difference between male and female imagination thus: "A woman in a wood might say: 'I do not like this wood' and a man would say, 'But why? It's only trees.' " In the end Marianne and Johan agree that he is "rather unimaginative". Intimacy counts more - and Bergman examines the conflict between intimacy and secrecy. Is it acceptable to have secrets within a marriage?

Penny Downie answers unhesitatingly: "Secrecy is a word that I wouldn't like to use in my life." Timing is important, honesty essential. "If we could live with the sense that each day we were speaking the truth - it could back up our lives, justify why we think and what we are." She stops. "Oh my God," she exclaims, her Australian accent suddenly waking up, "the gospel according to Penny Downie."

Alan Howard argues that absolute intimacy is impossible - and undesirable. "A sense of mystery is important," he says. "Wouldn't you still care to be surprised after 25 to 50 years of marriage?"

Kate Kellaway

The Observer, 25.11.90

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