@ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 26 Sep 2015 (and touring)
Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, an infamous play from the 1890s, was so naughty that the script was passed around the smoking rooms of decadent Vienna by duffers with monocles. Since the tame 1950s movie version it’s been constantly revived, adapted and retranslated. There’s a thrilling bisexual version and David Hare’s 1998 The Blue Room with Nicole Kidman gave it a new urgency. Now we have a tour of Liz Lochhead’s take on this gallus sex comedy. As they say, what goes around…
In the original, the prostitute sleeps with the soldier who sleeps with the parlour maid who in turn sleeps with the young gentleman and so on. It was so daring because Schnitzler showed how sex cut across the class divide and he was accused of washing the dirty bedsheets of the bourgeoisie in public. But the changing moral climate, contraception, and cures for VD took much of the sting out of this particular tale. Loveless one-night stands have taken the place of forbidden, transgressive passions.
Of course, it’s not really about sex and the “sex scenes” here are all under cover of darkness or duvet. I began to long for a glimpse of nipple or butt cheek. It’s a play about manners and negotiating modern relationships and it’s very funny and well observed. Take the internet dating disaster when, during pillow talk, one of the parties announces “I’m on the spectrum”.
There’s an added conceit. The first couple are present-day actors, Ruby and Rod, rehearsing a two handed version of La Ronde. This affords Ms Lochhead some lovely digs at the expense of the current state of theatre (something about which the playwright is never reticent) – Equity minimums and the nature of the underfunded “drama sector” means that no one can put on the fully-fledged play because they couldn’t afford ten people on stage at once. “All directors are dicks,” agree Ruby and Rod. “You’ve got the soul of a critic,” laments Rod. Inevitably the two actors sleep with each other. In the next scene Rod’s wife guesses his infidelity, and in the scene after that the wife indulges in a revenge fuck.
It’s all played with gusto by Nicola Roy and Keith Fleming who change characters by simply changing undies. There’s also the strange alchemy that is great acting. The remarkable Fleming’s shtick will be familiar to anyone who caught the Lyceum’s Venetian Twins earlier this year.
In this Traverse/Cumbernauld Theatre co-production director Tony Cownie pulls it off well (ooh, missus) although the voiceover linking device between (sex) acts is a tad awkward. Not everyone will be satisfied with the resolution of the final scene, with Ruby and Rod reunited in period costume, which seemed a cop-out, as if the playwright ran out of steam.