In Stanley Kubrick’s Eye’s Wide Shut, based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1925 novella Dream Story, a curtain rail of clothing is pulled back revealing two Japanese businessmen and an underage girl semi-naked. Pinioned there, they are chastised by the child’s father who later has come to an arrangement with the men; the child’s body is sold in circles of power that move ever upward, in a society where decadence becomes a kind of formal pulse of society.
Kubrick’s skill was in reifying the mysteries of the organism and creating in those queasy cabals of masculine power an impossible place where dominant sexuality becomes clear, fussless, revealed, a theatrical pornography. He allowed the reading (pace Vienna) that far from being built on a renunciation of instinct, civilisation was enmeshed with codes of sexual power in which differences between the sexes was a prime organiser.
While Kubrick used his cinematic lense to create chill, distant carnival, Anna Ledwich employs the intimacy of the Gate to move the action feverishly inwards. There is a de-emphasise on masculine conspiracy (her shopkeeper is a woman, the Japanese businessmen are replaced by the protagonist) as the action centres on a married couple whose passion has been exhausted. They are engaged in trying to communicate their phantansies, to suffer and to understand one another, all the while in thrall to their dreams and desires.
As Ledwich has noted Kubrick’s film is less ambivalent about whether the action that unfolds is a dream or not a dream, and so Dream Story uses the “doppelexistenz” of Fridolin and a synchronicity of dreamworlds to reinstate this ambiguity. This weaves in a sense of the netherworld of romantic responsibility (what constitutes betrayal, and are we accountable to it?), corresponding frissons of possibility, and unleashes some of Schnitzler’s thick, creamy symbolic prose. However in shifting everything onto the territory of the mind, we begin to lose our grip. The string of logic-light encounters that make up Fridolin’s erotomanic journey perhaps lacks the nuance or vividness they need, freed of any understanding of social process, the symbols are not rich enough. The tricks to encourage dream-state – odd backward movements, highly stylised vocals – are perhaps too intermittent to create the seamlessness they look for, and despite some tricks with a fluorescing bed, the underwhelmingly uniform lighting falls a few hours shy of the erotic dusk.
Perhaps what is most striking, is that Fridolin’s erotic journey through Vienna becomes a sort of parable of conservatism. When the externalisation of his desire is less about the ways in which it’s externalised, and more about the carnal space beyond the bourgeois couple, his madness becomes something of a punishment for promiscuity. At the same time Albertine is managing this crisis at home in dreams. As much as a psychic triumph, her central revelation comes off like a trite homily to a woman’s role: “as sure as I am of my sense that neither the reality of a single night nor even of a person’s entire life can be equated with the full truth about his innermost being”. Her role as forgiver and agent of stability contrasts starkly to Alice’s closing line in Kubrick’s film “we need to fuck”.
The decision to set the piece in 19th Century Vienna pays off in the costume, the gritty handsomeness of the piece. It makes the repression and sweat feel all the more authentic as we watch Fridolin twist within his priapically starched collar. Luke Neal successfully evokes a lost Stentorian man-child, and Leah Muller a croaking searching wife. But this is a very ancient model of couplehood. In the age of what the sociologist Anthony Giddens called the “pure relationship”, where love is negotiated, instrumental and contingent on its own momentum, the revelation that desire exists outside of dyadic relationships shocks no-one. Moreover, if we are to make something of betrayal we require a recognisable investment in what is being betrayed, and Ledwich’s adaptation struggles to give us a bridge to our own experience.
Freud once wrote to Schnitzler confessing he had avoiding meeting the artist for fear of encountering his (Freud’s) double. And yet, as steeped as he was in their games, Schnitzler remained critical of Freud and psychoanalytic method. “They [the psychoanalysts] only too often turn away too soon from a still viable road through the midst of an illuminated internal world because they think they have to explore the world of shadows and darkness.” This is perhaps why the shadows remain opaque, and the conservative message bright. At the Gate, the curtain rail is active. A sliding mechanism pushes the marital bed back into dungeons and grimly fluorescent mortuary slabs – a clever design from Helen Goddard to suggest this Sadean Narnia. But one that can’t escape the sense that throughout, the spotlight is shining in the wrong place.