Some plays lend themselves to radical reinterpretations and stagings while others need handling with more care. Arthur Schnitzler’s critique of Viennese society from 1903 probably falls into the latter category. To tamper with Riegen requires more skill and understanding than is evident from the treatment it receives from Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club.
Worthy intentions but unsatisfactory outcomes
The original has a very specific historical context that makes it a scandalous assault on a highly stratified society riddled with upstairs-downstairs hypocrisy - not to mention sexual diseases. There is no other comparable setting and to tamper with this is to undermine its message. Schnitzler devised a tight structure for his play. In his script 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) are paired in five scenes, with each new person moving into the following scene for the next liaison until the last completes the daisy chain with the first. Each has a specific status in society and is identified by manner and dress.
The reworking of this by Cambridge students has worthy intentions but unsatisfactory outcomes. Their aim is in some way to update the ‘relentless mechanics of desire, gender roles and power imbalances’ of the nineteenth century to show that they are equally relevant today. The ten parts are played by four actors. While doubling-up can be effective and unobtrusive in many settings, here it merely obfuscates. Add to this a cast dressed in an array of white and cream costumes that fail to denote who they are and all sense of definition is lost. The clothes are delightful and the bamboo and string screens that move for each scene are artistic creations - but none of this compensates for the lost message.
With so many many plays to choose from, it’s a pity that wiser counsel did not prevail. David Hare’s 1998 stage adaptation of The Blue Room (also by Schnitzler) at the Donmar should have sounded alarm bells. If he couldn’t pull it off to critical acclaim with Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen it probably means the chances of success are rather slim. This young group joins others who have meddled with the play to their peril; let’s hope it serves as a warning to others.