The current production of Joe DiPietro’s F**king Men at Waterloo East Theatre is an updated version of his original 2009 script that successfully takes note of developments on the gay scene in the years since it was seen at London’s King’s Head Theatre
A stunningly well-chosen quartet of actors
DiPietro says, “Much about our queer lives has evolved and changed since the play’s debut, so to bring contemporary attitudes to this roundelay of sex, love and intimacy has opened up new layers of meaning.” Director Steve Kunis has strikingly embraced DiPietro’s wish that this version be seen ‘through a youthful and modern lens’ in order ‘to deliver a sexy, incisive and hilarious night out’. All of those elements abound in the hands of a stunningly well-chosen quartet of actors thanks to Casting Director Anne Vosser. Alex Britt, Charlie Condou, Derek Mitchell, Stanton Plummer-Cambridge could not be better matched and rise to the challenge of creating ten characters in the roundabout of ten scenes that reflect the structure of Schnitzler’s infamous La Ronde, on which the play draws for inspiration.
There is, of course, an issue here. Schnitzler, a Jewish medical doctor, wrote the original, Reigen, in 1898. It was a critique of stratified Viennese society and the hypocrisy of judgements made by the upper classes about the lower classes and by those in respectable work or positions about those they deemed to be beneath them. Seemingly he shocked himself by what he wrote, declaring some scenes to be unprintable. The censors agreed and banned it in 1904. Initially he had not envisioned its being performed. When it was finally staged in 1921 the first public performance was closed down by the Vienna police and Schnitzler was prosecuted for obscenity among outpourings of anti-semitism. Controversy further surrounded the play with the 1964 film version, Circle of Love, that contained the Jane Fonda nude scene and The Blue Room, a 1998 stage adaptation by David Hare at the Donmar in which Nicole Kidman revealed herself from behind and Iain Glen performed a full-frontal cartwheel.
How times have changed! No play based on the original can capture the outrage caused when Schnitzler’s characters were revealed to be engaging in social intercourse, let alone sexual. Yet everyone knew it went on and they were content with the associated lies, infidelities, deceptions and cover-ups that accompanied the perceived immorality along with the male domination of all the set-ups.. HIs format consisted of consisted of five female characters (The Prostitute, The Housemaid, The Married Woman, The Young Girl and The Actress) and five male characters (The Soldier, The Student, The Husband, The Poet and The Count) paired in five scenes, with one of them alternately providing continuity into the next scene.
The UK in the 21st century, though still class-ridden, is unlikely to be shocked by such pairings. Whilst duplicitous revelations might cause some embarrassment and temporary inconvenience the newspaper headlines will soon change and perhaps only a few close connections will remember the actions and hold them against anyone. We have only to look at royalty and politicians to realise this. DiPietro turns his attention away from the syphilitic salons of 19th century Europe to the contemporary gay scene, where they have been replaced by syphilitic saunas. That disease can now be remedied and fears of HIV infection and unprotected sex have been mitigated by the emergence of PrEP and a range of drugs controlling viral load. Conversations about being undetectable are commonplace, though as this play illustrates in one pairing, honesty is not always forthcoming. Some things never change!
So how has DiPietro moved on from the focus on social stratification? EM Forster’s 'only connect', receives a mention and the idea of bridges between people that span from hook-ups to relationships is now the central theme. Charlie Condou and Stanton Plummer-Cambridge present an overt example in their ‘open relationship’ which sounds great in theory but comes unstuck in the detail. Other relationships, while as physically intimate, are emotionally more detached. The same pair as Journalist and Actor battle issues of coming out in Hollywood, a place where it ought to be easy and not matter, but still puts careers at risk and where Hume's Law is the foundation of debate.
Having only four actors play multiple roles means paying considerable attention to the subtle transitions from one scene to another and realising that a different person has now emerged. Alex Britt plays three young characters as befitting his true self, yet manages to imbue each with a distinctive persona. He provides varying degrees of seductive charm that are in marked contrast to the amusing portrayal of socially ineptitude by Derek Mitchell as the Writer, which is clearly differentiated from the uneasiness he attributes to his role as the Teacher.
A traditional La Ronde can be difficult to stage with a succession of scene changes that are often clumsy and time-consuming. Set and Costume Designer Cara Evens has overcome this problem with a perspex screen of windows and doors that cuts a shallow acute angle across the stage. Thanks to Lighting Designer Alex Lewer these can be see-through or opaque, often creating indoor/outdoor locations. Meanwhile, Sound Designer Charlie Smith facilitates the transitions with a variety of apposite music and sounds. Central to this daisy-chain of sexual encounters are the depictions of intercourse and oral engagement. Movement & Intimacy Director Lee Crowley has his hands full in depicting these moments. The production goes with vivid semi-nude sex scenes of humping bare bums and frontal flashes, the success of which is probably a divisive issue. The effect has been achieved with far more subtlety and there is a feeling that this might be a preamble to a full-blown porn show. It could leave some offended and others frustrated.
It’s perhaps helpful to set aside notions of Schnitzler and embrace DiPietro’s F**king Men as a modern insight into the merry-go-round of meetings and relationships that are part of every gay man’’s experience. Laugh out loud at the wealth of humour and empathise with men who lay bare their souls as much as their bodies.