Max Gill’s adaptation of La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler launches the second season at The Bunker, and it’s already causing quite a stir. Partly this is down to the star cast, but it’s fair to say the major draw of this production is its unique and fascinating format.
Four actors – Lauren Samuels, Amanda Wilkin, Alex Vlahos and Leemore Marrett Jr – play between them ten gender-neutral characters. There are ten scenes, each featuring two of the actors. But who appears in which scene is entirely down to fate, and decided by the slow, deadly spin of a roulette wheel. Altogether, there are over 3,000 possible different versions of the show, so it’s no surprise that it cries out for multiple viewings. Fortunately, it’s also entertaining enough to ensure that wouldn’t be a chore.
The use of a roulette wheel is appropriate, because La Ronde is a risky enterprise in more ways than one. Firstly, there’s the danger that one of the actors might find themselves repeatedly out of the loop; I saw very little of Amanda Wilkin until the comparatively short final two scenes, which she appeared in by default. (On the other hand, the mounting suspense of waiting to see if she would finally get her moment meant we never got bored of watching the wheel spin every few minutes.)
The format is also incredibly demanding for the actors, who have to learn every part and really think on their feet – but this outstanding cast have more than risen to the challenge. Every individual performance is confident and believable, as are the relationships between the different pairings, regardless of gender combination.
The overarching theme of the play is sex, and there’s some form of sexual encounter in every scene, whether consummated or not (which prompts the interesting question, what even counts as a sexual encounter; where do we draw the line?). Some are illicit, many unsatisfying, others quite poignant… And all of them are unseen, because the stage is plunged into darkness at the critical moment – an interesting choice that suggests the deed itself may not be quite as critical as what leads up to it, or what happens afterwards.
The script is necessarily gender-neutral, which creates a few awkward moments and rather excessive use of the characters’ (unisex) names, but on the whole flows more naturally than I expected. The different combinations of male and female force us to examine our own expectations about gender roles within sexual relationships and society as a whole. Questions of power, vulnerability, even career stereotypes (why should a female bus driver or a male cleaner be any more unusual than the opposite?) are all eloquently addressed, without labouring the point; the scenarios are unfolded before us and we’re left to consider our own response.
The modern setting and individual scenes are the work of writer/director Max Gill, inspired by stories he collected over several months from Londoners – snippets of which we hear during the transitions between scenes. But the structure of the play comes from Schnitzler, and is just as enthralling. Each character appears in only two consecutive scenes, with the first actor selected by the wheel returning at the play’s conclusion to close the circle. So within this big loop are lots of little ones, all linked both directly to their neighbours, and also indirectly, with events and characters referenced from earlier scenes. (Weirdly, the pattern reminded me a bit of that magic roundabout in Hemel Hempstead – which is not something I ever thought I’d write in a theatre review, and is honestly a lot more flattering than it sounds.)
The biggest disappointment of La Ronde, for me, is that I probably won’t have time to see it again and compare last night’s version with another – and so in a way, I feel like I can only half appreciate how clever the show is. But that’s really a compliment; this is an original and endlessly fascinating idea, brilliantly executed by both cast and creatives. It’s not without its risks… but I’d say this particular spin of the wheel is a winner.
Additional note on 7th March:
As it happens, I did get a chance to see La Ronde again, a few days ago, and it was just as interesting as I suspected it would be. With the exception of one scene, every pairing was different to the last time, and in one case involved the same people but in opposite roles. And though the script was familiar, the different combinations – not only of gender but of personality and style, too – made it into a brand new story. Some scenes were funnier than before; others much more emotional. Some characters were more likeable; others harder to relate to. And though the sexual encounters were the same in location and circumstance, the responses to them were different – not because, for instance, it was between a man and a woman instead of two men, but because it was between two unique human beings.
There’s something slightly addictive about La Ronde; having been twice I now want to go again (and again). It’s a show of – almost – infinite possibilities, and one that you sense will remain constantly fresh and exciting, for audience and actors alike.
La Ronde is at The Bunker Theatre until 11th March.