The promotional art for Max Gill’s adventurous adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde is a grey-on-black wreath of contorted bodies, or fragments of bodies, unidentifiable by sex or race. It looks like they’re connected, apparently more by pain than by pleasure; in fact, it looks more like they’re bound.
The tone of the artwork belies the elastic bounce of Gill’s direction and the sprightliness of the four actors. This adaptation is in many ways a radical departure from its source material: Reigen was a class-conscious piece that used sex to probe and subvert various power relationships, not only sexual ones; and its subtext was the spread of syphilis in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna. While Gill maintains the basic concept – ten scenes, each scene a two-hander containing one character from the previous one – he downplays the class element, blanches the STDs out of the picture, and levels the playing field by way of a large hanging roulette that is spun after each scene to decide which actor goes on next.
Naturally, this means each actor has learned the entire play, because each must be prepared to play any character at a moment’s notice, a feat for which all four actors should be congratulated. This doesn’t feel like a gimmick: it suggests that sex – the play seems less concerned with love than sex – is equally bewildering for everyone, that no-one escapes bringing their baggage to bed with them, and that all sexual relationships are nudged into existence by chance. But this philosophical gambit unmoors the text from an emotional grounding, and an uncertain semi-comedic tone emerges to plug the gap.
This would be forgivable if the comic elements succeeded, but often they feel hackneyed or strained. There’s nothing wrong with comedy and seriousness coexisting in uncomfortable proximity. In fact, the play starts off with a svelte gigolo ordered to pour baked beans over his client and speak in a commanding Spanish accent, while at one point his client loudly mentions that she’s pretending to be six years old, and that in reality she’s guilty of accidentally running someone over with a bus. This kind of oddness is interesting. But when the sexual kinks continue to feel kitschy, one wonders – where’s the serious stuff?
Gill attempts to imbue the play with gravitas by grounding it in reality. He spent months interviewing “prostitutes, adulterers, the incestuous, fetishists, singletons, and the married and bored.” We hear voice recordings between scenes, and it’s clear that his research informed the writing itself. Although he lifted Schnitzler’s structure, he wrote the dialogue almost from scratch. But these voice recordings have no emotional impact. They’re too brief, too disembodied, too overwhelmed by the whirring of the roulette and the dramatic game-show lighting.
A similar thing might be said of the vignettes themselves. One about incest, for instance, is handled so quickly that we have no idea whether the half-realised kiss between siblings is a function of the brother’s recently discovered cancer or whether it’s part of a deeper, undeniable attraction to his sister.
It’s tempting to ascribe this lack of emotional heft to the play’s episodic form: maybe it’s more concerned with making us think than feel. But as the play draws to a close, the philosophical hints become more frequent, and nothing is made of them. For every gentle, ironic reference to Shelley’s “Love’s Philosophy”, there are nods to “the void” of sex, the transience of love and the frustrations of desire that are never explored in any depth. We come away feeling heartened by Gill’s originality, but disappointed by the lack of anything to connect with or chew over.
The actors make the best of this situation. If you see the play, the roles will almost certainly be taken up by a different configuration, but it would be fair to say that Lauren Samuels and Amanda Wilkin are excellent, and although Alex Vlahos’s comic timing needed honing, he juggled a range of different characters with aplomb. The whims of the wheel meant that we barely saw any of Leemore Marrett, Jr. on press night – he was consigned to the sidelines until the last two vignettes, when he was given a chance to show off his vocal abilties but not his acting ones, which seemed a pity.
Ironically, the play loses much of its social bite and commentary by being gender-neutrally transposed to 2017 London – we’re left with glimpses of glimpses, and a piece that is more ludic than lucid. Gill’s ambition and originality is to be praised; I hope his next project – which I would like to see – has more to say, and better ways of saying it.
La Ronde is on until 11 March 2017 at the Bunker. Click here for more details.