What Goes Around went around Scotland in autumn in a touring production by Cumbernauld Theatre Company. The NTS has done sterling work in taking theatre to theatre-starved parts of the country, but somehow this particular work brought back memories of the good old days when several companies, Wildcat, 7:84 and Borderline most notably, travelled the land, performing at different venues and moving on. The Cumbernauld show stopped at established theatres such as the MacRobert, Dundee Rep and even the Traverse, but it seemed better to see the impact in a less frequented theatre space, like Greenock.
The Beacon Arts Centre was constructed some ten years ago. It is described as ‘purpose built’, which when decoded places it in the period when architects had lost the ability to design exteriors. Seen from the road, it resembles a giant dice, covered with light green squares which give it a certain stolidity. It is positioned in one of those little historical corners which, having somehow survived the destructive planning craze of the post-war years, can still be located in Scottish towns. The interior of the Beacon complex is relaxing and stylish, with a fine little bistro looking onto the craggy hills on the far side of the Clyde, which is still surprisingly busy with tugs, ferries and assorted cargo vessels. There are two theatres, a grand 500-seater and a smaller studio theatre.
Regrettably, the smaller studio was more than adequate for the audience which turned up to see Liz Lochhead’s version of Arthur Schnitzler’s once controversial, fin de siècle work, Reigen in German but normally known in English as La Ronde. Schnitzler was Viennese and Jewish and one of the most talented representatives of that glorious flourishing of revolutionary art and innovative thought which accompanied the twilight years of the Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary. His contemporaries included Sigmund Freud, who suggested that Schnitzler had grasped by instinct all that he had acquired by laborious effort, Gustav Klimt, Karl Kraus, Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Robert Musil, Alban Berg and the list is far from complete. At the same time, an older, leisured fairyland of Johann Strauss, Franz Lehar and Blue Danube operetta lingered on, but it is not too much to say that the culture of modernity was brought to life in those years in that city.
Schnitzler’s theatre work shows a preference for the vignette, or a series of swift scenes cunningly linked but not exactly constituting a fully plotted play. He suffered the strange fate of slipping out of public memory, while his work continued to fascinate and intrigue theatre professionals. David Hare, Tom Stoppard and David Harrower are among playwrights who have done adaptations of his work, while Max Ophuls adapted La Ronde for the screen and Stanley Kubrick used one of his short stories as the basis for his celebrated, enigmatic, Eyes Wide Shut. The playwright may express the underground spirit that subsequently emerged into daylight all over Europe, but at times, especially with La Ronde, he was unsure of his own projects and fearful he had gone too far.
The play could only be staged once it came out of copyright. Although seemingly written as early as 1900, it was performed in public in 1920, but was then withdrawn from circulation by the author after a production in Berlin caused riots and led to a trial for obscenity. The poisonous aspect of this trial was that it was motivated by anti-semitism. The Archbishop of Vienna denounced the play and took the opportunity to attack Jews as corruptors. Needless to add that the Nazis were even more venomous and vocal, so Schnitzler’s books were among those thrown into the flames as corrupt and corrupting, although the author himself died well before Anschluss.
We complacent citizens of the twenty-first century smirk benignly at what we believe to have been the small-minded prejudices of previous generations. Facile terms like ‘Victorian’ or ‘bourgeois’ customarily describe their subservience to inhibitions and taboos as against our superior, libertarian openness. Nothing can shock us now, can it? ‘I write of sex and death,’ Schnitzler once declared, but of sex overtly and of death with more subtlety. Death is not for us, so we focus on the sex.
Sex can be funny, embarrassing, tender or casual, as Liz Lochhead, the latest writer to tackle Schnitzler, shows in this new ‘version’. Neither a translation nor even an adaptation, the version scorns the notion of a fixed text and has become a genre in its own right in British theatre today. It encourages high creativity and requires an ability to plunge, like a swimmer into cleanness leaping, into another age or culture to bring up pearls from the depths. It entails radical re-thinking and re-creation, and may be compared to the process of adoption, where an author takes in a refugee text from another culture, gives it some house training before releasing it in a form familiar to the neighbours. There is, of course, nothing remotely sinister or even innovative about this process.
Nobody has made more fruitful use of the ‘version’ than Lochhead. The works of Molière in particular have provided her with material that she has refashioned, burnished and polished, embellishing the final script with layers of wit and touches of poetry of her own. Molière’s Le Misanthrope became Misery Guts, and does not suffer in comparison with the French. The structure of Schnitzler’s play allows her to riff on the script, so that if the new work is wrenched from the original culture, where it can continue to shine in its own light, it is placed in a new niche in the ragtag and bobtail tradition of Scottish theatre.
In What Goes Around, directed deftly by Tony Cownie, Lochhead maintains Schnitzler’s use of overlapping episodes and recurring characters, sometimes producing some new scenes and characters but at others reproducing original situations and turns of mind. She employs a contemporary Scots idiom which avoids any risk of audience alienation from the portrayal of a sexual culture which is seemingly familiar, but uncomfortably so. The people depicted are strangely lacking in self-consciousness, and are driven, not by anything as sublime as love, but by lusts and desires. They are without scruple in betrayal of relationships, fearful only of being found out, although Lochhead also suggests in certain exchanges that casual sex is never entirely casual, that even fleeting intimacy can be followed by disappointment and damage, only not all the time and not necessarily for both partners.
This new version is still liable to upset certain sensibilities. All the interlocked scenes end up with the couples rolling about in bed, joyously or joylessly, having been coaxed or coerced, leaving one of the two to move blithely from that engagement to a further encounter where different attitudes will be dramatized, but the result will be the same. Some passages, such as a long, anxious dialogue about Stendhal’s theories of love, come from Schnitzler, but more commonly Lochhead treats the original like a maypole for her text to dance around, glancing at it over her shoulder, commenting on it, coming close to it but then seemingly ducking and traipsing away.
Schnitzler opens with an encounter between a soldier and a prostitute, while Lochhead opens with an actor and an actress in the green room where they debate superficially the merits of a play they are about to stage, La Ronde. They note with disbelief the better resourced days in Vienna when an impresario could hire ten performers, while in our more straitened time the two of them have to play all the parts. The two actors playing actors, Nicola Roy and Keith Fleming, rise splendidly to the multiple challenges, from the first vignette where Roy plays the naïve luvvie, star-struck in the presence of Rob, the cool, off-hand celebrity. She wonders if the play they are staging is not ‘a wee bit cynical, far-fetched’ but is willing to go along with her co-star that ‘directors are all dicks,’ while her swooning attitude plus the beer they sip make her willingness to submit quite credible. They scuttle off to the first of the evening’s acts of coitus, if not exactly love. For her this will be decidedly bad sex.
Another male of the species has a harder time later with Natalie, his ex-wife, when he turns up clutching a teddy bear, hoping to see his daughter, but meeting bitter reproaches for neglecting to provide agreed financial support or to show up when he had promised. The most agonized reproach is over his having slept with her best friend, but past conduct is no guard against present desire, and the two pull off clothes to the ironic accompaniment of Et je t’aime. The body, not the spirit, is king. Women can be as casual, manipulative or prone to lie, deceive and cheat as men. Loyalty until death or divorce do us part is for losers.
The coupling in bed of the separated couple is not the prelude to a fresh re-start, because, desire satisfied, Natalie orders him out, telling him that she has met someone else. Any suggestion that her new relationship will be golden is dispelled when she and her new partner, Stephan, whom she had met on-line, are seen in bed together. He had plainly been a disappointment, so the two have an awkward, embarrassed, hesitant discussion of contemporary dating etiquette, exchanging tentative references to their different sexual histories. This is perhaps the most touching moment of the evening, but it holds no hope for a better tomorrow. Natalie sends Stephan packing, after telling him that the necessary spark is lacking. What do women want, Freud is alleged to have asked on his death bed? Good sex and magic as well, seems to be the reply. Men will make do with good sex.
Stephan is then left to eat a lonely take-away meal in his flat, with only his transistor for company, until his lodger arrives, and she is young, attractive, seductive and an actress who has a part in La Ronde, rounding off the merry-go-round. ‘It’s about sex,’ she explains helpfully, asking Stephan to give her a hand by reading the male part while she tries to memorize her lines, perhaps in the scene with a prostitute and a soldier, she suggests? He wishes to display his histrionic abilities, but she tells him just to read straightforwardly. The comedy of the scene fades as art merges into life, or perhaps the reverse, and the two end up clinging to each other.
Fleming can also be a joiner on call to the house of a randy, well-to-do housewife, who invites him to her bedroom to the accompaniment of If I were a Carpenter and you were a Lady, before she turns anxious as the time draws near for her husband’s return. From scene to scene, the characters change but props on stage are the same – a double bed and some clothes baskets. Nothing else is needed. But this is not all human life. Or is it? What Goes Around makes for a splendid piece of theatre, wry, amusing, biting, uncomfortable and provocative.