La Ronde – Enigma and Arthur Schnitzler. (Theatre Review)
Enigma theatre company
When Sigmund Freud told Arthur Schnitzler that what he’d struggled to convey in a lifetime was successfully summed up in the one hundred minutes of La Ronde, he cemented for Schnitzler a divisive point of reference that has rocked the theatre world ever since. With such a declaration comes a colonization by Freud (something he was so good at) that bonds Schnitzler as co-conspirator and forever leaves La Ronde open to a Freudian bound interpretation, or a refusal of it. In its historical context, it is shocking – bawdy, amoral, revealing women to be both perpetrators and enjoyers of sex, something socially unacceptable in the day, and consequently banned. La Ronde is, remarkably both ahead of, and behind the times with its carnivorous women and multiple date rapes, strikingly representational of its writer, a man who (so it seemed) loved strong women, as strength enhanced the pleasures of his victory in their defeat. Is it right to love Schnitzler when he’s so… well Schnitzler-esque? La Ronde throbs with all these contradictions, the very battles between lovers for possession, satisfaction, self-actualisation and independence that go on so much in the day-to-day, we forget about the weight and might of their power. And yet in the simplest of interactions we find epic psychic fractures, every sexual encounter in our lives leaving its grubby stain alongside its perfect kiss. This is the passion and the tremble in the veins of La Ronde.
It is a brave company that chooses to stage a straightforward adaptation of La Ronde in our post-enlightenment world, as it stands as a contradiction, Freudian or otherwise, to the current fashions that favour an ideal of sex as reproduction, its associated drama merely peacock feathers. We fancy ourselves to be so wise, so clever, so advanced these days, in that we see sex as merely the natural product of our genetic drive. And yet, in this climate and context, La Ronde suddenly appears ahead of its time, its witty dialogue, each subjects transformation in the face of their lover, the connection between sex and power collude to remind us we sublimate at our peril. Anything you have to convince yourself of bares examination, and there is no doubt the “scientific truths” of sex as we know them today are the subject of constant conviction. As long as sex is connected to desire, as La Ronde exposes, it becomes many things but natural cannot be included among them. Not one character in La Ronde seeks procreation. In fact, the fertile egg is the ultimate turn off.
Steve Hopley has brought an inspired version of La Ronde to Sydney Audiences with a lo-fi production in the round at the old, historical theatre site, Coronation Hall in Newtown. This is a straight production, Hopley leaving centre stage to the brilliant dialogue and the wonderful performances, increasing the intimacy by seating the audience in an almost closed circle around the “action”. Above, a mirror ball spins, its reflections spreading out over the interior of the building, adding to the connection everyone feels, the impression of a starry sky, and a campy seventies sexual vibe. Each actor comes from the side of the hall, planting themselves in various stages, on a small round stage that doubles in most scenes, as a bed.
Amy Scott-Smith begins and ends the production where all sex begins and ends, with the whore, her first encounter with a soldier, her second with an ambassador, prostitution being the great leveler. She is an impassive emblem of sex in our society, Schnitzler showing his “age” through the mystique he writes into the character, but Scott-Smith brings the woman to the icon, making her more lush vibrant person than image. Peter Jamison is the soldier, playing the character like a modern-day rugby league player, seducer when he wants something, filled with a violent disdain when he’s taken what he needs. Alison Lee Rubie is the housekeeper, one of the more fascinating characters in the play, the woman who falls for the violent, dangerous man, and yet doesn’t balk at “supplying” her boss and helping herself to his spoils. Does guilt drive her into the arms of the soldier, or does contempt motivate her to steal from her lover/employer? Jasper Garner Gore is terrific as the young man for whom sex is always illicit, always a secret, always stolen. Garner Gore plays him first as a man who thinks he is seducing, but who is being seduced, and second as a man who fancies dangerous desire is the same as love. Emily Elise is the young wife, bringing a fresh burst of energy into the play when she arrives, as well as a great deal of humour. The wife is always playing games, according to Schnitzler, first she is the seductress with her lover, and then innocent perfection with her husband, and Elise clearly has a wonderful time playing her two roles off against each other. Leigh Scully is the husband, probably the most dated of the characters, but Scully plays both the husbands roles with a much-needed dignity, no easy feat considering he probably has the most unpleasant character to portray, but so important. Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou is suitably restrained and yet enigmatic as the sweet girl. Hers is another difficult role, innocence as a deliberate device of the provocateur is no longer something we fall for as a concept, but Grigoriou gives her a subtle cleverness that updates the character, making her pertinent. Brendon Taylor is very funny as the writer, a man perpetually in love with love, and yet endlessly using it for his inspiration, injecting a passionate energy to both his roles. Amanda Maple-Brown is a stand out as the actress, easily finding her place in both her scenes and bringing a different version of the same woman to each of her lovers, and a comic freshness that is a high point of the production. Finally, Jaymie Knight is the ambassador, our philosopher. Knight plays him thoughtful, gentle and, in some ways, a man looking forward through time to something we might recognise in ourselves today. His final moments with Amy Scott-Smith are beautiful, touching and progressive.
This is an extraordinary opportunity to see La Ronde in all its naked glory, immaculately performed, and perhaps, deliciously too close for comfort, but then, is there any other way to see La Ronde?