It’s really masculinity that is due a re-think

Gustave Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary, his debut novel, in 1856. Almost immediately it stoked controversy for its depravity, but this haunting story about Emma Bovary, a strong, ambitious wife struggling against the narrow framework that enclosed women’s lives at that time, could not be held back. Even a turbulent court case could not prevent it becoming a success.

© Danny Willems

Madame Bovary is a realist novel and quickly became a best-seller. It is regarded today as one of the most influential novels in world literature. Just over a century and a half after its first publication, KVS sets about bringing Flaubert’s novel to the stage. Michael De Cock writes the adaptation, Carme Portaceli directs and Maaike Neuville plays Emma Bovary.

This isn’t Portaceli’s first attempt to bring an iconic female literary figure to the stage. In 2008 she directed What happened after Nora left her husband, a version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House by Elfriede Jelinek. In 2017 she directed Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and last year she created Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. In 2021 you will be able to see Madame Bovary. Each production was a hit: in Madrid, Mrs Dalloway sold out thirty performances in a row and over 24,000 people came to see it. Blanca Portillo, famous for her roles in Almodovar films, played the lead. Carme Portaceli (CP) says, 'it’s clear that audiences are ready to see more, and better developed, female leading roles in the theatre. Michael and I want to be part of bringing the other 51% of the world’s population to the stage.' Maaike Neuville (MN) didn’t need long to agree to accept the lead role for the production’s revival in Brussels.

Maaike, you’ve read this novel very thoroughly. What struck you most?

MN: One word: desire. Emma Bovary’s overpowering desire to become whole. She goes on a quest – not an easy one in those days, especially for a woman – to pursue her endless desire for the ideal life. It struck me because it’s something all of us have in one way or another. The way Flaubert describes Emma’s inner world so vividly but also brings to life the world around her makes it a timeless piece.

Can you understand Emma’s behaviour and choices nearly one hundred and fifty years later?

MN: I can absolutely understand them. Nothing is ever enough for her, and that’s something I can related to. She has a compulsion for perfection and to be complete. Her desire for adventure, for ultimate freedom are something that exists in all of us to some extent. She’s the personification of that urge. Luckily though, I have some moderating mechanisms that stop me going over the edge.

CP: Emma Bovary is just the right character to help us think about dreams, romantic love, what freedom for women could really look like and how society’s gaze sells women short. Emma cannot accept her boring, average existence as a doctor’s wife, and she lets her masculine side lead her. But it doesn’t bring her fulfilment – and society doesn’t accept it.

© Danny Willems
I suspect Emma Bovary wanted to rebel against all those straitjackets, which were a lot more present then than they are now.

Are the problems Madame Bovary struggled with still present in 2020 – are women still dealing with them?

MN: If it hadn’t been Madame but Monsieur Bovary I don’t think anyone would have paid much attention. Men had more permission in those days, a man didn’t have to hold himself to much account with public opinion if he had a mistress or if he just sought out a bachelor existence. I’m not sure that much has changed today. In western society, men and women are equal on paper, but not always in practice. I think women internalize certain things – I sense, and I recognize this in myself, that a woman still has the feeling she has to fulfil many roles at once: the loving spouse, the caring mother, the seductive mistress, the socially intelligent hostess, the successful career woman (these days anyway) to name just a few. I suspect Emma Bovary wanted to rebel against all those straitjackets, which were a lot more present then than they are now. She felt the need to rail against the prevailing values and norms of her time. I think women today still fight those values and norms, only we’ve internalized them and so it becomes a kind of inner battle.

CP: The way society sees women is still unfair. If a mother cannot for one reason or another be there one hundred percent for her children, then she’s a monster. If a woman who is raped doesn’t scream her innocence until her very last breath, then she is probably asking for it. These narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity hold men prisoner as well. Nobody benefits from this patriarchal system that sits deep in our genes. We need to expand our view.

MN: Wat I admire in Emma Bovary is that she can translate desire into action. Even though her choices ultimately bring her down, she does choose to explode and not to implode in depression. She chooses action. She chases her dreams, however unrealistic they might be. Beckett once said, “dance first, think later,” and that certainly applies to her.

One woman’s struggle opens doors to other women’s struggles for equality.

So you both think we still need feminism?

CP: Absolutely! Women still don’t enjoy the same rights as men, we still earn less for the same work, we aren’t given the same choices and too frequently we’re simply invisible. In Spain at the moment we’re seeing one of the largest feminist movements, and I’m very proud of that. On International Women’s Day last year, five million women in Spain went on strike. One woman’s struggle opens doors to other women’s struggles for equality. When I was Artistic Director at Teatro Español I worked incredibly hard to make women more visible. Actually, to just make sure everyone had the same chances. And it worked. When I started there, our audience attendance was around 28%. Just five months later it was 78%. Fighting for equality pays.

MN: I’m someone with a very strong sense of justice. So yes, I do stand up for women’s rights – and it comes from feeling that it’s just ridiculous to treat people according to what sex they were born. The binary of male/female is quite out-dated; I prefer to think in terms of masculine and feminine. Everybody, men and women, has a combination of masculinity and femininity inside them. So if we’re talking about emancipation, let’s talk about men and women emancipating our feminine side – because then we’re talking about everybody, not just half the population. Personally, I think femininity is actually doing OK and it’s really masculinity that is due a re-think. How do we behave towards other people when we’re in positions of power? How are we with money? How are we treating this planet that we’re destroying? What is our engagement with the world? These are all masculine aspects, and we urgently need to review them. Someone I find really interesting is Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, who operates from a position of power in a very human way. So it can be done.

Can theatre play a part in building a better future and, if so, how?

MN: Like any art form, theatre is an opportunity to connect with other people. Not around a theory or ideology, but through recognizing humans’ inner lives. That’s where the real revolution can take place – in knowing yourself, and therefore also knowing your neighbour. I don’t believe in just “good” any more – I believe that art, and therefore also theatre, shows us the wide variety of experiences that play out inside each of us: good and bad, ugly and beautiful and so on. To me, that’s the real beauty – looking inside ourselves and learning to embrace even our darkest, bitterest sides through understanding that we are not excellent, not perfect, not superhuman, just: human.

CP: Theatre is really the only place where you can take a moment to look at what it means to be human, and where everyone is equal. We breathe the same air, we experience the same emotions and experiences, we see the same thing happen at the same moment. There’s room to listen, and to talk to each other afterwards about what we experienced.

Finally, Maaike, what does it feel like having this opportunity to portray one of the most iconic female characters in literature?

MN: Amazing! I can’t wait to bring this wonderful, tragic, subtle figure to life on stage.