Review: La Ronde (The Bunker)

Max Gill’s adaptation transports Arthur Schnitzler’s play into modern-day London

Arthur Schnitzler deemed his 1900 play La Ronde too sexually explicit for a public audience. When it finally received its first public showing in Vienna some twenty years later it was shut down by police and Schnitzler was prosecuted for obscenity.

100 years later the stir around David Hare's adaptation, The Blue Room, which premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in 1998, concerned the nudity of its co-stars Iain Glen and Nicole Kidman, which famously led critic Charles Spencer to, perhaps disturbingly, describe it as 'pure theatrical viagra'.

A further 20 years later and Schnitzler's play, originally an exposé about the spread of syphilis due to sexual encounters that transcended the classes in 20th century Austria, is transported by Max Gill to modern-day London and attempts to portray a city in which gender and sexuality are as fluid as its inhabitants' moralities.

Gill's adaptation retains the structure from which the play takes its name. La Ronde in French, Reigen in German, roughly translates as round-dance and refers to the chain of sexual encounters which take place throughout society, ultimately leading back to the start where the sequence inevitably continues.

La Ronde is made up of ten interconnected scenes, each containing two characters, one of which we meet in the previous encounter and, in Gill's production, whoever plays the other is determined by the spin of a giant onstage wheel.

Besides being a literal symbolisation of the play's title, this roulette wheel offers an element of excitement to a piece that has lost some of its allure in this desensitised era, where sexual preferences and perversities are no longer the taboos they were at the turn of the twentieth century.

This randomness means the cast of four, split equally in terms of gender and race, could be called upon to take to the stage as any one of the ten characters. Subsequently, the meaning of each scene changes in real-time. A female bus driver soliciting a violent sexual act from a male prostitute would have different implications if the genders were reversed. A married lesbian having an affair with a rich male student, or an actress seducing a member of royalty who in turn prefers the sexual gratification of the male prostitute we met in the first scene. Each of the scenes would play differently depending on which actor was picked, and so the course of the play and the story it tells is entirely dependant on how the wheel spins.

The potential for over 3000 variations of Gill's production, presents an exciting and interesting proposition, one that inspires a return visit to see just how different the story can be. But it also means the piece is impossible to thoroughly direct and at times characters and scenarios feel underdeveloped.

Despite that, the company of four rise brilliantly to the challenge. Best known for roles in Bend it Like Beckham and We Will Rock You, Lauren Samuels proves her versatility lies far beyond musicals, deftly switching between a belligerent Russian cleaner, a dour Doctor, and a pompous American actor, with only a smidgen of stereotype. Amanda Wilkin and Alex Vlahos are equally as impressive, Vlahos seeming to be the wheel's favourite player to stop on.

Unfortunately the luck of the spin eluded Leemore Marrett Jr, who was only called upon by default in the final scenes, a potential flaw in the concept which otherwise perfectly illustrates the notion of fate and the indiscriminate nature of attraction.

La Ronde runs at The Bunker until 11 March 2017.