First published in The Times, Monday September 28 2015
Liz Lochhead’s new play features more layers than a Viennese torte. The rich base is La Ronde: that once-scandalous work by the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler, famously structured as a chain of sexual encounters that eventually comes full circle. In Lochhead’s version, this “sexual daisy chain” provides the inspiration for a tangy backstage comedy in which multiple characters revolve around an impoverished two-handed production of Schnitzler. The result is frequently entertaining, even if it proves to be not quite the sum of its many parts.
The pairs of lovers in Tony Cownie’s production, all of them played by Nicola Roy and Keith Fleming, bear little more than a passing resemblance to the ten characters in La Ronde. In the opening scene, we meet the actors charged with bringing Schnitzler’s play to life sharing a well-earned drink at the end of a long day of rehearsals. One thing leads to another, and in the next scene we see Fleming’s has-been telly actor reluctantly confessing to his successful academic wife. She then proceeds to seduce a rough diamond builder, who in turn tries to rekindle his relationship with his ex-girlfriend . . . And so the carousel turns, with each of these fickle characters experiencing their own moment of passion that proves fleeting and transitory.
This structure makes great demands of its actors, and Roy and Fleming impress with their versatility, creating multiple distinct characterisations with only the subtlest of changes to their appearance. Cownie also manages the scene-to-scene transitions gracefully, maintaining a strict focus on the performances, Lochhead’s vivid phrasing and the play’s fruity premise. Fittingly, the only splashes of colour in Neil Murray’s monochrome set are the embroidered sheets and pillows used for the pivotal bedroom scenes.
Pic: Eoin Carey
Where the play lets itself down is in its final act, when Lochhead dispenses with Schnitzler’s structural mechanism and shifts focus onto the abortive run-through for the play-within-a-play. At this point Roy and Fleming are given the unenviable task of portraying a tyrannical Eastern European director and a curmudgeonly playwright whose characters are rendered in such broad strokes they appear to have wandered in from another genre entirely.
This dénouement proves frustratingly inconclusive, and while, on the whole, Lochhead’s script is insightful on the absurdity of sexual coupling, you leave wishing she had found a more elegant way to square her circle.