Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Review: 'La Ronde' at The Bunker, 13th February 2017

Max Gill's adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde has a pretty unlucky press night. Schnitzler's play (intensely controversial in its day) depicts a series of interlinked sexual encounters: two characters fuck and one of them carries onto the next scene where they fuck someone else and so on and so forth. It's a loop that closes in the final scene, hence the title 'the round'.

This production realises that as an onstage wheel of fortune. With the four performers' pictures taped to it, chance decides who will appear in the next scene. As far as I'm concerned it's a sound concept, the programme making hay with the idea that we're all are trapped on the same wheel: existing within the same society and slave to the same desires. (Not to mention baking a refreshingly inclusive gender blindness into the show).

It's also a neat way to build dramatic tension and excitement. We wonder what the wheel will throw up next, and, as it ticks to a stop, you sense the anticipation building. Injecting an element of randomness into theatre is risky but comes with a potentially big payoff. After all, life is not a proscribed series of events, so why not try to capture its chaos on stage?

Sadly, at least on press night, this doesn't quite go according to plan - the wheel stubbornly refusing to pick one of the four actors, Leemore Marrett Jr. By the mid-way point it's clear that something is up, the cast reducing the number of choices on the wheel to just two. Still it doesn't pick him. 

Perhaps sensing that the wheel might be mechanically faulty, they move his picture to the other side of the disc. Still it doesn't pick him. By the end of the night they've spun the wheel with just two choices on it ten times and capricious fate obstinately refuses to choose him. Eventually it feels as if the production gives up on the wheel of fortune conceit, stops spinning it altogether and sticks Marrett Jr in for a couple of quick scenes right at the end.

It's terrible luck (the chance of this happening is 0.098%), and a credit to the production that they manage to do the whole show with one less actor than they were anticipating. Still, even were he to have been picked, I've got a number of bones to pick with the show.

Prime among them is the show's iffy tone, oscillating between scenes that nudge at the edges of Carry On style sex comedy to brutally honest emotional engagement. It's simply jarring, to have broad slapstick stuff shoulder to shoulder with a man being diagnosed with terminal cancer, feeling as if the show is constantly doing U-turns, something not helped by variable performances that often fail to delineate the changing characters.

Amanda Wilkin is the best of the bunch by some degree, conjuring up a wounded desperation as a bus driver who ran over someone and is now frantically trying to feel anything other than numbness. There's something reassuringly solid in how she conveys her characters' sexuality, making it funny without trivialising it. 

Alex Vlahos doesn't quite manage the same feat, donning spandex booty shorts and behaving like a manic fetish pixie dream twink. His characters largely approach sex as something cartoonish. His best moments come when he dials it down a notch, gracefully and touchingly dealing with being given a cancer death sentence.  

Lauren Samuels fares worst, saddled with the teeth-grittingly unfunny role of a perpetually grinning generically Russian/Eastern European cleaner with a thick comedy accent. To put it bluntly, watching vaguely xenophobic stereotypes forcing people to eat goulash just isn't my idea of a good time.

On top of all that, La Ronde quickly proves to be a surprisingly prudish play. It plays sex for laughs, politely dimming the lights and skipping over the actual fucking. It ends up feeling peculiarly and painfully British, as if it's unable to portray sex or even discuss it without resorting to obfuscation or giggling. Compare this to recent productions like Unfaithful, 5 Guys Chilling or Fucking Men (itself an adaptation of La Ronde) - each of which showed relatively graphic sexual encounters while still telling a complex and intelligent story. 

By comparison La Ronde is all sizzle and no steak. And sadly, even the sizzle isn't particularly compelling.


La Ronde is at The Bunker until 11 March. Tickets here.

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