Review: La Ronde at The Bunker Theatre

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.

Photo credit: Ray Burmiston
Photo credit: Ray Burmiston
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.

Photo credit: Ray Burmiston
Photo credit: Ray Burmiston
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.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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.”


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.