BWW Reviews: UCT Drama's LA RONDE Doesn't Quite Square the Circle
Everyone has particular stories that appeal to them, narrative patterns that shift and change as time goes by but which essentially deal with the same central themes. For me, LA RONDE is one of those stories. Written by Arthur Schnitzler in 1897, the play has been adapted many times since its beginnings as a piece written for the playwright's peers and its eventual first controversial production 23 years later. As a part of their winter season, the Drama Department of the University of Cape Town (UCT) is mounting the 2007 Stephen Unwin and Peter Zombory Moldovan translation of the play, featuring their senior students in a production directed by Jacqui Singer.
LA RONDE tells a tale in a circular structure of several pairs of lovers from a diverse range of class backgrounds in the late nineteenth century. A Prostitute solicits a Soldier, who deflowers a Maid, who seduces her Young Master until eventually things come full circle when a Count wakes up alongside the Prostitute from the first scene. Many things are transferred from encounter to encounter, including agency, status, emotional baggage and snippets of language, allowing Schnitzler to deconstruct the concepts of morality and class as the play progresses.
The cast tackles the multiple challenges of performing this play head on. These include negotiating the clash of styles inherent to the piece, which are perhaps magnified in this modern translation, and exploring a style that works in the intimate playing space of the Playroom. Some are more successful than others and all will most likely improve as they settle into the run and relax into their roles. The more pressing concern, for me, is that the performers often seem to act past one another in a play that essentially deals with connections between people and the consequences thereof. The success of LA RONDE play relies on impeccable listening and responding from each pair of scene partners and there is some work that could be done here in this regard.
Nonetheless, there are some promising performances in LA RONDE. Georgia Lahusen bestows the Prostitute with a winning physicality, and really comes into her own in the final scene of the play opposite Kieran McGregor, who characterizes the Count with some convincing nuances. As the Actress, Sarah Potter grapples with the stylistic concerns of the piece and delivers some delightful work. Thoko Masikini, playing the poet, flirts with a Wildean persona in the role, but needs to make more concrete choices when it comes to the degree of effeteness the character can support. Similarly appealing, Lea Seekoe offers up a titillating Sweet Young Thing, but must work on her over-explosive and at times assimilated consonants in passages where a faster pace of delivery is employed. Jodi Bloem exudes elegance in her first scene as the Young Wife and offers good support to Joshua Wyngaard in her second, who lets the role of the Husband get away from him at times. Natasha Ward manages the development of the Maid from her first scene to her second well, shifting easily from prey to predator opposite Steve Norman as the Solider, who could work for crisper articulation, and Dylan Owen as the Young Master, who sometimes needs to reign in the size of his performance to be more believable in his part.
In directing LA RONDE, Singer picks up on the dance metaphor implied in the title of the play and has crafted each scene with a fine sense of choreography. The range of images she sculpts with the actors' bodies works well in establishing relationships, status and mood. What is missing from the production are stronger choices in creating a unified stylistic vocabulary for the play as a whole.
In designing the set, Singer and McGregor have adopted a minimalist approach, using a few carefully chosen set pieces to represent the ten different settings in which the various lovers' rendezvous take place. There are some beautiful pieces of furniture on stage, along with two white multi-functional boxes that rather detract from the aesthetic of the design as a whole. In three corners of the space are reflective revolving doors that serve as entrances and exits into the space. The strongest point of the design, not only visually but also because of their symbolic resonance, it is a pity they were not a more explicit feature in the composition of the stage picture.
The scene changes are effected by a trio of servants, a potentially fantastic idea that is executed in too utilitarian a fashion. Given the amount of stage time they take up in between the relatively short scenes as well as the deconstruction of the class system that is intrinsic to the play, there was great potential for the threesome to become a silent chorus that commented on the action through their physicality. Instead, everything possible was done to make them neutral. Paradoxically, their inclusion in this context means that this is the one thing they can never be and this adversely affects the rhythm of the production
What is revealed by this production of LA RONDE are the delights of returning to a source play that has in recent years been overshadowed by some of its offshoots. Aside from a number of film versions, the many stage adaptations of the piece include THE BLUE ROOM, David Hare's modern English reworking of the piece (which was directed by Singer at UCT with the graduating class of 2004); Joe DiPietro's contemporary gay version, FUCKING MEN; and Michael John LaChiusa's decade hopping musicalisation, HELLO AGAIN. Revisiting the one that started it all, it is almost startling how little certain things have changed since Schnitzler first put onto paper his thoughts about the social dynamics of life in the 1890s. While everything does not quite come together in the end, the UCT's LA RONDE is still a rewarding experience, with several moments in which the play springs vividly to life.
LA RONDE runs until 17 May 2013 at The Playroom on UCT's Hiddingh Campus in Orange Street, Gardens, at 19:30 nightly. Tickets can be booked through Webtickets.
Photo credit: Jesse Kate Kramer