Sex. The word alone was enough to send people skittering in 1897, the year German playwright Arthur Schnitzler wrote his highly controversial play La Ronde and saw it banned by the censors not long after.
Today it barely prompts a raised brow, which is why when up-and-coming director Max Gill set about crafting an adaptation of Schnitzler’s work last year, he decided he needed a new conversation starter.
“The original is very Victorian, and I thought it would be a shame to reassert a play that values virginity, repressed sexuality, and embodies quite a heteronormative outlook,” Max says. Cue the Collaborative Artists’ ‘gender-neutral’ take on La Ronde, which opens at The Bunker on 11 February starring Amanda Wilkin, Alex Vlahos, Lauren Samuels and Leemore Marrett Jr.
“Every character in the script can be played by either a man or a woman,” he explains. “We’ve got four actors who swap roles between the 10 characters so the identities change every night.” This elastic approach to identity is intended to get the audience thinking about their own prejudices towards gender and the age-old debate surrounding nature and nurture.
The opening scene, for example, features a prostitute and a bus driver, and takes on a rather squalid edge when played out conventionally. When the roles are reversed however, the story changes, as does the audience’s response.
Oxford University graduate Max spent three months interviewing a variety of people on all things sex: from affairs and infidelity to incest. These verbatim testimonies of subjects ranging from sex workers to City bankers play as background noise throughout the scenes.
“Taking on [La Ronde] was quite daunting because sexuality and gender is incredibly broad and I wanted to create a real collage of voices,” he says of the interviews, which swing from tortured confessions to bland indifference. “It has been really interesting for myself and the actors to explore our own prejudices towards gender and sexuality,” Max says.
“We have to ask ourselves: ‘why, when a character who’s a cleaner is played by a man, we feel worse for them than if the cleaner were a woman?’”
La Ronde opens the 2017 programme for The Bunker following a successful debut season last year. The 110-seat theatre, in an underground car park near London Bridge, was launched to champion the work of up-and-coming artists.
Max says he hopes the month-long production will create an agenda as modern as its audience. “When Schnitzler wrote the play there was this fear of open expression of sexuality, now we talk about sex all the time and there’s almost this fear of sexual repression – people are asking themselves ‘should I have a fetish?’ for example.
“The whole process showed me that there really is something out there for everybody.”
La Ronde is on at The Bunker until 11 March