In keeping with its history, this latest production of La Ronde by Zebronkeyis controversial. Describing it as a ‘bareback ride to get your juices flowing’, the issue is whether the company has gone for titillation over substance and for puerile pornography over serious social commentary. Thankfully, it seems somewhat justified.
An important positive note about this production is that, unlike The Blue Room, it remains true to the historical context of the original.
Arthur Schnitzler, a Jewish medical doctor, wrote the original, Reigen, in 1898. He did not intend for it be performed and even seems to have shocked himself by what he had written, declaring some scenes to be unprintable. The censors agreed and banned it in 1904. In 1921 the first public performance was closed down by the Vienna police and Schnitzler prosecuted for obscenity among scenes of anti-semitism. Further public debate ensued with the 1964 film version, Circle of Love, containing 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.
An important positive note about this production is that, unlike The Blue Room, it remains true to the historical context of the original. Viennese society was stratified and the hypocrisy of the upstairs, downstairs relationships in this play is central to its purpose. The format consists 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. This daisy chain of encounters forms a syphilitic saunter through the sexual transgressions of all social classes, revealing a world of secrets and lies, infidelity and lust, and male domination.
A major challenge for directors is how represent the various sexual acts. Blackouts and drawn curtains have both been used along with simulations and dance routines. At this point Zebronkey’s director, Clive Perrott, uses two additional characters in the guise of a butler and a maid, who remain on either side of the stage throughout. They facilitate set changes and produce scene titles in a manner akin to the Victorian music hall or the silent movies. Most importantly they create intimations of sexual acts with a range of objects including peaches, bananas and a toy train among others. These scenes can be viewed as cleverly creative and comic, or trite and trivialising, depending on your perspective.
In the main roles Thea Balich and Mark Lyle rise to the challenge of creating differentiated characters, while Abi McLoughlin and Ben Isherwood clearly revel in the impropriety of their games.
The aim of Zebronkey in this production is to create ‘a thoroughly wicked, extremely naughty and very funny interpretation of this notorious classic’. In so doing purists might say that the whole point of the play has been missed, but, if you like a theatrical conundrum, you’ll probably enjoy this production.