Live theatre is incredible because no two performances are the same. Each show has little changes, a line delivered differently or a shift in the audience’s atmosphere. But rarely has this been so true as with a new version of La Ronde, starring Alexander Vlahos and Lauren Samuels.
Max Gill’s new take on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play brings the Austrian playwright’s idea to present-day London. Ten sexual encounters play out in front of the audience. Each features one character from the previous scene. So a bus driver meets a cleaner, a cleaner meets a student, a student meets a wife and so on as it toys with the reasons, emotions and power behind the trysts.
Why is it different each night? Each performer – Leemore Marrett Jr and Amanda Wilkin star alongside Versailles star Alexander Vlahos and Lauren Samuels, best known for her musical theatre work – has learned every role. Who plays which character is determined by a spin of a wheel seconds before the scene is performed. It means any preconceptions audiences might have about a character – gender, race, sexual orientation – can be flipped in an instant. And there are around 3000 possible combinations.
“There’s something quite electric and fantastical about what we’re doing,” Vlahos says. It’s not often such a description could be taken as understatement, but this is one of those times. We find out more.
What is La Ronde about?
Samuels: It’s about sex. It’s about different couples, different statuses, different relationships and how sex is different. It’s about what sex means to different people and how base it is. How animalistic.
Vlahos: It’s also about what you perceive as a social ladder. What we think a cleaner is compared to what we think a professor is. What we think an actor is compared to what we think of as a prostitute. We put them in brackets because it makes our lives easier. That person must be of a certain gender or race. What this play does brilliantly is throw a mirror up to the audience and ask, “Really, is that what you think?” The play shows it doesn’t have to be that way.
Samuels: It’s completely rewritten from the original. Max [Gill, the writer and director] has reimagined the entire story. It’s now not set in the 1800s. It’s set now. But it’s still based on the same subject, sex.
Vlahos: I think as London is such a multicultural hub, it’s the perfect place to have all these characters. You do believe they could all meet in this crazy city.
The Bunker is a very intimate theatre in which to stage a very intimate show. How do you think it affects the production?
Samuels: I think it works incredibly. It is terrifying. The audience are just going to feel like a fly on the wall in really intimate settings.
Vlahos: It’s great because the piece is thought-provoking, but through the intimacy of the situation it also becomes very provoking in other ways. The audience is able to see everything, which I think is what the piece needs. Max’s writing and the concept wouldn’t have the best impact if it was on a vast stage. This requires subtlety, nuance and a closeness and intimacy. The Bunker is the best place for it. I hope.
The Bunker excites me. They’re not sticking to a rule book. They’re very open for a challenge. They’re very brave and brazen with their ambition. I’m thrilled we’re in there.
How have you found working with the roulette wheel?
Samuels: We start the show as neutral beings. We’re not any character yet. The wheel spins and the first character is chosen…
Vlahos: We all have very different processes. The way we want to inhabit a character and how long it takes us is different for each person. Throughout rehearsals, we’ve honed that process down.
Samuels: Normally, you don’t have another actor playing your role. What’s great about this is you can sit on the sides, see someone else and think, “That’s a great idea.” We’ve sort of found the characters between us.
Vlahos: Also, certain dynamics work. It’s not like a written thing. We know Lauren and I will do a certain scene in a certain way. If it’s me and Leemore, there’ll be a different thing that’s locked in.
Samuels: We had whole afternoons when we worked out the logistics of how certain genders would have sex. What they would do and how we had to change it for different people. When it’s Amanda and I, it’s very different to when it’s me and Alex, or Alex and Leemore. We spent all these afternoons just talking about genitalia.
Vlahos: I hope the concept of the roulette wheel doesn’t take away from what the play’s about. People are coming because they’re intrigued about the roulette, but it’s just a device we’re using to showcase the work. It’s the play that’s really important.
Samuels: We’ve already had so many responses, from people saying, “I don’t normally go to the theatre” or “This isn’t something I’d normally see, but I’m so excited.” People have booked a number of times because they want to see the different combinations. We’ve had lovely correspondence from people saying they’ve struggled with their sexuality or gender. It’s so great that people are going to be able to come and watch it knowing that they’re going to be represented.
Lauren, how have you found moving from musical theatre to this?
Vlahos: You’ve not even gone in the deep end. It’s an entirely different pool.
Samuels: Do you know what, though, in musical theatre I’m used to learning lots of music, lots of dances, then lots of scenes. It’s not been the learning that’s made me feel so out of my depth. It’s been great for me to learn.
Vlahos: This rehearsal process was unlike anything I’ve done, either. When you do a normal play, you have one character. Maybe you are sharing an ownership of that character with an understudy, but it’s yours. You’re the one that goes on. With this, that gets taken away from you. Every night is going to be different. We’re going to sit in the dressing room and the script is always going to be there. We’re never going to be comfortable enough to put the script down.
Samuels: Normally, you have adrenaline for the first couple of nights and then it subsides and you’re able to have a play. This is never going to be that, because the adrenaline is never going to go.