“If we’re going to do it, let’s fucking do it”
Sex sells. And so Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play of 10 interlinked intimate encounters has proven enduringly popular over the years – adapted for the gays, for fans of musicals, for Charlie Spencer’s libido… – and now Max Gill has taken a decidedly 21st century gender-neutral approach to La Ronde for the opening salvo in the Bunker’s second season. A giant roulette wheel dominates Frankie Bradshaw’s set and as it spins, it is thus left to chance to dictate who of the company – 2 women, 2 men – will tag in to play the next two-hander (or not as the case may be, the wheel refusing to land on one of the actors on press night).
So from Premier Inns in Hillingdon to doctors’ surgeries, bland apartments to hot and sweaty lifts, all sorts of shenanigans play out. Tinder dates gone awry, ex-lovers unable to resist each other, sex workers going about their business, marriages gone stale, the unpredictable nature of the casting means that everything is up for grabs here and between them, Alexander Vlahos, Amanda Wilkin, Lauren Samuels and Leemore Marrett Jr do a fine job, whether it is Vlahos slipping into black PVC hotpants or Wilkins nailing each and every one of her vivid characterisations.
But this fluidity also comes at a cost. The approach opens up the awesome possibility of over 3,000 different iterations of the play but from a pure storytelling point of view, the emphasis on variety detracts from the specificity that any actor might build up in their consecutive scenes. And given the rules of the game, that the departing actor is exempt from the next, it means that any scene that is played same-sex is necessarily followed by a coupling of opposite sexes (ie every lesbian will always then go on to have sex with a man…), thus mitigating against its exploration of the full complexity of the sexuality spectrum.
Gill’s direction, of this particular configuration, seems to tend towards the comic, which also undermines something of the profundity of the writing. Caricatures may get the laughs but it is the rare quieter, more studious moments that actually connect, reinforcing Schnitzler (and Gill)’s point about the intersection of desire with class/gender/ethnicity/sexuality over any boundaries. How much more interesting it might be to see scenes like the power games of the domestic servant and the academic threaded with a darker eroticism, playing up their emotion rather than the comedy, and thus bringing gravitas to a production that does have more to say that it currently does.