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Scenes from a Marriage (QPAC, Brisbane)

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Johann (Benjamin Winspear) and Marianne (Marta Dusseldorp) live beautiful flat-packed lives equipped with two seen-and-not-heard children, sparse Swedish décor, and suitably European approaches to fidelity. Their lives and dinner parties are ruled by schedules, which – I imagine – would be managed in a bright leather planner with something forcefully mindful, like “MAKE IT MATTER”, embossed on the front.

Johann describes himself as “basically decent – and a great lover”, while Marianne defines herself in relation to her roles: wife, lover, mother, lawyer – in that order. Despite the homewares-catalogue life, Johann is “suffocating in the details”; tired of responsibility for the lives he helped create, he abandons Marianne and their daughters on a family holiday for a younger woman and a life in Paris. It’s taken a lot of practice, he tells his wife, but he no longer gives a toss.

Scenes from a Marriage is adapted for the stage by Joanna Murray-Smith from Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 television series. In the year of its release, Sweden’s divorce rate nearly doubled. Bergman was notoriously held to blame, and later rewarded for his efforts with a Golden Globe for the theatrical cut. Scenes is like the antidote to The Bachelor: instead of watching love form in a hurry between competing strangers, we watch a meticulous dissection of a tempestuous marriage over years as they compete to enable one another in abuse. Strap yourselves in.

The play’s first act is impeccably structured, compelling and hilarious, peppered with aphorisms Oscar Wilde would’ve been jealous of. Heading into the second hour, we can see where we’re going: in circles, towards mutually assured destruction. By the time Marianne and Johann actually come to physical blows, we’re already worn down.

David Fleischer clearly had a ball with the set – a Swedish-design wet dream. This is the space IKEA display rooms want to be when they grow up. Johann might want out, but I leave the play ashamed to go home to my mismatched furniture. The only mess in this couple’s home is in the space the cleaner can’t reach – between them.

The play hangs on the chemistry of real-life couple Winspear (The Babadook) and Dusseldorp (TV’s Janet King), whose energetic tête-à-têtes bounce off the walls. Dusseldorp’s Marianne explores more range and vulnerability, while Winspear’s glib, assured Johann embodies the trope of the overconfident “mediocre white man”. Marianne might take one step forward for every two back, but she at least grows. Johann, on the other hand, justifies his man-child habits as bringing out Marianne’s maternal side.

The supporting cast are a talented bunch – Hugh Parker, Christen O’Leary and Loani Arman – if in slight roles. Given the play’s focus on the central flame, we don’t see much of them beyond their wheeling out fresh pieces of beautiful furniture. (Leaping across 10 years, the titular Scene changes are signalled by subtle set variations and not-so-subtle ominous reverb in Kelly Ryall’s sound design.)

What Winspear and Dusseldorp (whose names, together, sound like a luxury brand or an esteemed law firm) capture best in their characters is the simultaneous nuclear intensity and superficiality of relationships like this – all spark and no bite. Johann and Marianne will keep stoking the trash-fire until their friends stop accepting their dinner invitations and start name-dropping their really very good family psychologists. It’s compulsive viewing, but you might need a drink and a lie-down afterwards.

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Scenes from a Marriage (Queensland Theatre Company) runs at the Playhouse, QPAC, until 3 December. Photo: Rob Maccol.

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