Interview: Max Gill, La Ronde

After a successful opening season, The Bunker opens its second in February with Collaborative Artists’ new production of La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler. Adapted and directed by Max Gill, a cast of four actors – Lauren Samuels, Alex Vlahos, Leemore Marrett Jr and Amanda Wilkin – will take on the play’s ten roles, but with a twist: each night chance will decide the parts they play, ensuring that each performance is different.

“La Ronde is a helter-skelter through the mores and morals of society, via the sex lives of its inhabitants, thrown together by the blindness of fate and desire,” says Max. “What drew me to it initially was the whiff of controversy. Schnitzler’s original was banned for many years and subsequent incarnations and re-imaginings such as Max Ophüls’ film and David Hare’s The Blue Room have certainly sizzled in the public’s imagination.

“Schnitzler’s world of turn-of-the century-Vienna is complex and detailed, but there is a seductive simplicity to the play: a man and a woman meet, they have sex, and we see the aftermath. There is a grammar to the world that is levelling. This allows one’s inventiveness to run quite free in terms of the interpretation of characters and their relationship dynamics.

“Furthermore, the sex act that takes place in every scene in Schnitzler’s original is marked only with asterisks. The text is an invitation to actors and theatre-makers to interpret and imagine; this is surely why it was considered so shocking. This act of imagination makes even the most puritanical of thinkers prurient, even if just for a moment! The play enforces an experience of fantasy, which I would posit is sexuality at its core.”

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Max has taken Schnitzler’s 1897 play, set in Vienna, and adapted it for a 21st century London audience. “The play is all the more powerful for the fact it was written over 100 years ago. It presents human warmth and vulnerability, our need for another, and the insatiable beast of desire inside us all as if it were written yesterday. But the world of the original is, of course, of its time. For example, its women, with the exception of a prostitute, maid, and actress of ill-repute, do not work. It presents rigid portraits of gender, class, and sexuality that today are inevitably stale and that I didn’t feel compelled to regurgitate. Hence the desire to adapt it for the 21st century and a London audience.

“Modern London is the greatest social melting pot in the world; nowhere else has quite the same wealth of voices, cultures, and identities jostling together in bars, on the tube, and in the bedroom. To blow dust around in the past would be a shame when instead we could take Schnitzler’s ingenious structure and place it upon the beating heart of contemporary sexuality with its glorious opportunity and polyphony. In this way, I have refashioned each of the characters to suit contemporary social identities and have adapted the majority of situations. The dialogue, desires, and relations are therefore largely very different from the original.

“Integral to the play are verbatim testimonies from real life prostitutes, lovers, fetishists, people who have committed incest and so on, that we have collected over many months in London. It has been an adventure. They are a curation of sexual appetites today and I hope their voices give the play a vibrant relevance.”

Unlike the original, Max chose to make his version of La Ronde gender-neutral. “Fundamentally, I’ve stripped the text of any markers that point to a character’s gender, sexuality or age so that they can be embodied by each member of the cast, either male or female, depending on how the roulette falls,” he explains. “Whilst this in theory means the script is non-gender specific, it means that in performance an audience’s reaction to it is likely to be highly gendered. How do we digest a woman as opposed to a man visiting a female prostitute? And how might we react differently to a male stay-at-home parent philandering than to a female? How then might our appreciation of this relationship transform if both the parents are men? What inadvertent expectations or prejudices does this throw up for you? Many of the characters appear gendered in that they may be ‘passive’ or ‘active’, ‘dominant’ or ‘submissive’, ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’; we want to explore how far these labels are attached to any physical reality at all.

When Schnitzler wrote his play, there was a general fear of the open presentation of sexuality in a public domain. We are the opposite. We talk about sex all the time because we don’t want to be Victorian about our bodies. But this means that people now often have a fear instead of their own sexual repression and an anxiety around their own sexual identities; if sexuality is a spectrum, where am I on it? Do I have a fetish? If not, why not? Should I?! How do my sexual activities define me and do I want them to? A sex worker I interviewed for the play said that ‘people don’t do things not because they don’t want them, but because they don’t want to want them’. We have a freedom of choice today but we still haven’t worked out a freedom of self with regards to our sexual choices, indeed if this were ever possible.

I hope our play delves into the kaleidoscopic nature of 21st century sexuality but also the freedoms and boundaries that lovers encounter today, be they societal or personal. I hope it goes some way to explore what lies at the heart of any relationship, amorous and/or lustful, no matter who it may be between.”

Photo credit: Ray Burmiston
Photo credit: Ray Burmiston

Unsurprisingly, having different actors playing different roles every night throws up some huge challenges for director and cast alike: “But exciting ones,” adds Max. “We are so lucky to have such a talented cast and their dedication to the project is a testimony to their commitment as actors to keep demanding more and more of themselves.

“For one, it means that the actors have to know the whole play off by heart and it means that every night they have to be prepared to play any variation of roles, which is a very different discipline to acclimatising to one role over time mentally and physically. It means that rehearsals are a very collaborative process; everyone is always present and everyone feels a shared ownership of every beat in every scene, which provides a rare but hugely rewarding cohesion.

“Having said that, each actor is encouraged to have a very different understanding of a character and scene from the others, and so each scene is an exercise in truly engaging with the other actor; there can be no auto-pilot. After we have set down a framework for each scene, the different temperatures each actor and their interpretation brings will lead the moment. There is a ‘liveness’ to the action that conventional theatre can lose through repetition.”

Max is honoured to be opening the second season at The Bunker: “It’s a seriously exciting new theatre for my generation, and it’s been welcomed ravenously! As a space, it aims to champion and develop adventurous work by younger artists; to take risks essentially, which sadly is all too rare in theatre today. I can’t wait to see how it continues to thrive.”

La Ronde is at The Bunker from 11th February to 11th March.

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