LA RONDE. Directed by Jacqui Singer, with Sarah Potter, Joshua Wyngaard, Lea Seekoe and Georgia Lahusen. At the Playroom, UCT Hiddingh Campus until Friday at 7.30pm. GREG SMITH reviews.
LA RONDE is a play that scrutinises sexual morals and class ideology through a series of 10 characters sequentially bedding each other.
Written by Austrian dramatist Arthur Schnitzler in 1897, the production was not publicly performed until 1920 because of its controversial subject matter – even then Schnitzler suffered moralistic and personal attacks that became virulently anti-Semitic.
Set in end-of-the-century Viennese society, La Ronde is staged as part of the UCT Drama Department’s Winter Season, and consists of interlocking scenes between several pairs of lovers. Stories are introduced by wall projections that read: “Late in the evening. On the Augustan Bridge”, “Soldier on his way home, whistling”, or “The Prater. Sunday evening.”
At the end of each scene the “oldest” character leaves the stage, with the new scene played with the remaining character plus a new one (A+B, B+C, C+D). The circle is completed when the last and first characters appear in a final act together.
By taking its title and structure from the round-dance (as portrayed in the nursery rhyme Ring a Ring o’ Roses), La Ronde gives us the opportunity to see several sides to each of its characters. And because the balance of power shifts with each new scene, revelations regarding sex and gender dynamics surface.
So relevant was the material at the time that Sigmund Freud even wrote to Schnitzler in 1922, stating: “You have learned through intuition – though actually as a result of sensitive introspection – everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons”.
The Prostitute (Georgia Lahusen) finds herself at the bottom of the food chain in “Scene one: The Prostitute and the Soldier”. After their brief transactional encounter, The Soldier (Steve Norman) tries his luck (only to come up short) with someone higher up the social ladder in “Scene two: The Soldier and the Parlour Maid”.
As the play progresses we’ll climb upwards to meet The Husband (Joshua Wyngaard), his Sweet Young Thing (Lea Seekoe), her beloved Poet (Thoko Masikini), as well as the object of his affections, The Actress (Sarah Potter). The play reaches its climax with “Scene 10: The Count and the Prostitute”.
Under the direction of Jacqui Singer, the young cast (all UCT final-year drama students) embrace their respective roles with total commitment.
La Ronde is a production that deals with the kind of subject matter you have to have experienced in real life in order to pull off a convincing performance on stage.
Many of the scenes see someone asking, “Do you love me?”, or, “How many others have you been with?”. Every time, the question is deliberately evaded, maintaining the fantasy that the connection they share together is unique.
Even though the script does not require simulated sex or the depiction of nudity, there has been a trend abroad when reviving the play to opt for a more racy routine. It is in this regard that I appreciate Singer’s decision to leave something up to the imagination (a blackout occurs just as the sexual act in each scene takes place, and when the lights are switched on we find the characters in post-coital bliss).
Considering the age and life experience of the actors, I felt this was the right route. It gives them the opportunity to push the boundaries of their comfort zones, while also guiding the viewer towards paying attention to the witty and insightful dialogue.
Singer, along with Kieran Mcgregor, also designed the multi-functional set, consisting of a double bed, a divan, two desks, as well as several chairs. Costumes were designed by Leigh Bishop, and include tuxedos, garters, tight bodices, and sexy red satin nightgowns.
Each scene change sees two butlers and a maid rearrange all the furniture in the room, adding or subtracting props to flesh out the believability of each setting. I appreciated the dedication with which these three tackled their duties, but found the overall process to take up too much time, cutting into the pace of the production.
When Schnitzler originally wrote La Ronde, he did so against the threat of syphilis as the backdrop, and noted that “what lies at the deepest level of human nature is the fear of death”. The author goes on to state that “our fear of dying is a primal instinct more profound even than the sexual desire that brings the characters in the play together”.
In her director’s note, Singer explains that this juxtaposition of sex and death (it is no coincidence that the French refer to an orgasm as “the little death”) is at the heart of the play.
“As the illusions of romance are stripped away,” she explains, “what is left is hunger for connection, for a moment of intensity, which is also a moment of oblivion.”