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.


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Review: An Inspector Calls at Playhouse Theatre

Stephen Daldry’s groundbreaking production of An Inspector Calls acquired legendary status when it was first performed at the National Theatre in 1992. Having completed yet another national tour, it’s now back in the West End, and as powerful and relevant as ever. In fact if anything, given the current sorry state of the world, the play’s message of social responsibility speaks to us now even more than it did 24 years ago.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Though J.B. Priestley’s story is set in the early 20th century, the brilliance of Daldry’s production and Ian MacNeil’s astonishing set is that the events unfolding before us could be taking place anywhere, at any time. In 1912, the well-to-do Birling family are enjoying a dinner party in their elegant home, which resembles a large dolls’ house perched precariously above a dark, rainy street from the 1940s, when the play was written. But the family’s celebration of daughter Sheila’s engagement is interrupted by the arrival of a police inspector, bearing the tragic news of a young woman’s suicide… One by one, the mysterious Inspector Goole forces each member of the family to confess his or her part in the woman’s downfall, and draws them away from their luxurious surroundings to face judgment from a silent audience of “supernumeraries” – men, women and children to whom the Birlings would never usually give a moment’s thought.

The pouring rain, creeping mist and Stephen Warbeck’s ominous music help to build the tension towards an explosive climax and a final direct plea from the Inspector, delivered with genuine emotion by Liam Brennan as he begs us all to remember the responsibility we have to each other. But the story doesn’t end there, and a glimmer of hope can be found in the despair of the Birling children as they stand alongside the family maid Edna (played with quiet dignity by Diana Payne-Myers) and watch the others climb, cackling like pantomime villains, back into their wrecked house.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

As the Inspector, Liam Brennan embodies the very heart of the play, a gruff Scotsman who both ridicules and rages at these people who seem so stubbornly unaware of the damage they’ve caused. Clive Francis cuts a frail but defiant figure as the patriarch Arthur, and there are strong performances from Barbara Marten and Carmela Corbett as mother and daughter – one refusing to acknowledge her guilt, the other readily embracing it with appalled horror.

J.B. Priestley’s political stance as a socialist is well-known, and not at all glossed over in this production. But the story is not just about politics; it’s about humanity. This is the third time I’ve seen the play, but without a doubt it’s the most powerful. Priestley might perhaps have hoped that by 2016 his play would be redundant, but the events of this week show it’s anything but. We live in a world where intolerance and self-interest are increasingly the norm – and as long as that’s the case, this play will continue to resonate.


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Interview: Palindrome Productions, Watching Glory Die

“Our major and abiding goal is giving voice to the dispossessed – those written out of history. Live performance has the ability to wake the dead and let them speak,” explains Lesley Ferris, director and co-founder of British-American company Palindrome Productions. “It’s always a highlight for us to witness the astonishment of audience members at seeing a living history about which they knew little if anything: the history of the British actress and suffrage, for instance, or the British history behind Palestine. Both of these still impact us today.”

The company’s latest offering, Watching Glory Die by Judith Thompson, was inspired by the true story of 19-year-old Canadian inmate Ashley Smith, who choked herself to death while her prison guards, on suicide watch, stood by and did nothing. Opening at Cockpit Theatre on 19th July, the play sees three women – prison inmate Glory, her mother and her guard – portrayed by a single performer, Victoria Fox.

Photo credit: Palindrome Productions
Photo credit: Palindrome Productions

Both Lesley and dramaturg Penny Farfan – Professor of Drama at the University of Calgary and past editor of Theatre Journal – have long admired the work of Judith Thompson, a leading Canadian playwright, and seized the opportunity to work together on Watching Glory Die. “Thompson is a unique voice in Canadian theatre, renowned for her distinctive combination of poetic power and shocking brutality, as exemplified in Watching Glory Die,” says Penny. “She’s helped to shape modern Canadian theatre by staging aspects of society not typically seen on stage. In doing so, her work has found an international, as well as national, audience.

“Palindrome has a commitment to women playwrights, marginalized voices, and social justice. With its three female characters and its exploration of the tragic failure of the correctional system to serve the needs of one of its most vulnerable inmates, Thompson’s play is a perfect match for Palindrome. And the production offers a wonderful opportunity for London audiences to see a recent play by an important contemporary playwright.”

Palindrome’s co-founder Lesley Ferris has a long-standing passion for women’s writing: “Women have historically been marginalized and in some cases removed from history.  When I first began to study women playwrights, after I finished my degrees, I was horrified that no teacher or professor ever talked about or rarely included women’s work in their courses. Aphra Behn was a 17th century British playwright and the second most produced following the Restoration. She wrote amazing comedies that had feminist themes, and she was the first woman in Britain to write roles that women would actually perform. After her death her plays were still produced but by the time of the Victorian era she was quietly removed from sight – a woman who wrote comedies! Strong vibrant roles for women! Get rid of her!!

“History informs the present, so discovering Aphra made me think abut the present – and theatre is the art form of the present tense, so I’m committed to producing women writers and encouraging others to do so. In the USA a campaign for more women playwrights began a few years back: 50/50 in 2020 – 50% of plays produced by women by 2020, which is the centenary of the vote for women in the USA.  Scholars and theatre artists are tracking this, and there may be recently a bit of improvement but there’s still a long way to go.”

WFG_870x470

Why should audiences come and see Watching Glory Die? “Multiple reasons!” says Lesley. “The play addresses an aspect of our culture – incarceration of women – that has become more extreme and problematic in the 21st century. But it’s also an opportunity to see Judith Thompson’s work, and how she imagines a solo work that takes in three distinct roles. By making this a solo work instead of a three-hander, Thompson points out the links to be made between women.”

Penny adds one more reason: “Ashley Smith was Canadian, but the issues that Thompson’s play raises transcend national borders. As Thompson has said, ‘There are Ashleys all over the world.’”

Catch the UK premiere of Watching Glory Die from 19th-23rd July at Cockpit Theatre.

Review: Russian Dolls at King’s Head Theatre

Kate Lock’s Russian Dolls, winner of the 2015 Adrian Pagan award for new writing, brings together two unlikely companions – Hilda, blind, elderly and struggling to maintain her independence, and Camelia, who’s just got out of a young offenders’ institution and wants nothing more than to go back there. When she robs Hilda, a surprising connection is forged, and the two discover that their lives are actually not all that different.

Exploring as it does some difficult themes – abuse, loneliness, gang violence and addiction, among others – it would be easy for the play to become a bleak picture of two isolated souls just trying to survive. And while there’s certainly plenty in Hamish MacDougall’s production to shock and dismay, this brilliant two-hander is far from one-dimensional. Both Hilda and Camelia are strong-willed and proud, and they quite literally speak different languages, so the resulting clash of personalities allows for a good deal of humour alongside some genuinely heart-warming moments.

Russian Dolls at King's Head Theatre
Photo credit: Andreas Grieger
Playing these complex characters are two perfectly cast actresses, who each begin alone on stage with a soliloquy direct to the audience. Stephanie Fayerman’s Hilda is determined and stubborn, refusing to stop living her life or to give up the things she loves, and discussing the sudden total loss of her sight with a levity that only thinly masks her devastation. Meanwhile, Mollie Lambert takes Camelia, a character many would be all too ready to write off as a lost cause, and reveals her to be an affectionate, warm and funny girl, who loves her family and dreams of a better future. Like Hilda, her bravado hides an intense vulnerability, and her ambitions become all the more poignant as she’s inevitably drawn back into the repeating patterns of the world she’s left behind.

Becky-Dee Trevenen’s set takes in the whole width of the intimate space, encompassing Hilda’s front door, living room and kitchen. We never see outside the flat, only hearing second-hand about characters and events, and this heightens the sense of isolation for the two women. In fact the only time the story doesn’t feel completely natural is on the one occasion the outside world briefly enters their safe space, when Camelia arrives home with a gun she’s stolen from her brother and his gang. This results in a mildly chaotic scene in which she runs around the flat behind Hilda’s back, hiding the weapon somewhere new, only to pick it up again moments later and move it somewhere else – and finally putting it back where it was in the first place. When the gun then disappears in the following scene, it feels like a bit of an anticlimax, and we only learn its true significance much later.

Russian Dolls at King's Head Theatre
Photo credit: Andreas Grieger
This thoughtful and moving play ends rather abruptly, with no clear resolution, but still manages to leave us feeling uplifted, despite some of the horrors that take place within it. Camelia and Hilda’s relationship begins as a practical arrangement – Camelia acts as Hilda’s eyes, while Hilda provides the authority and discipline Camelia’s never had from her own mother – but grows into one of genuine affection. This, along with the open-ended final scene, encourages us to go away considering how society needs to change before such stories can possibly have a happy ending.


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