A beautiful, shifty young man blows the dust off an artificial flower. He tells the young girl that she should have real blooms in her boudoir and that he will bring her some, but then his voice trails away. What he can't reveal is that he is about to fight a duel over a married woman with whom he's also been idly dallying. Unlike her more realistic female friend, the girl has family reasons for needing a romantic ideal and dreams of escape. The youth not entirely insincere, but he's a poor bet. Not that there would be many bona fide candidates, for this is Vienna at the brink of the 20th century and it's a world of fraught, half-frank sexual hang-ups, rising militarism, and the kind of liberation for women that allows them to trail allure, provided that the trail is just the continuation of chains by other means.
Arthur Schnitzler skewered this society with an acute psychological penetration that drew praise from Freud. The dramatist's vision is conveyed now in a brilliant, intensely deliberate and eerily stylish production by the Vienna-based, Swiss-born director Luc Bondy.
The proceedings unfold on a circular disc of a stage and, in the very first moments, a tipsily complacent young male character topples off this raised, deconsecrated host of a space into the orchestra pit beneath. The art nouveau curves and decadent colour schemes of the bachelor flat in the first half give way to the virginal white of the heroine's rectilinear bedroom in the second, with the visual constant of a window that dangles like some free-standing empty picture-frame, symbolising the dream of escape and the dread of being watched, as the stage almost imperceptibly edges round.
The translation is by the gifted playwright, David Harrower, and, though it has the odd confrontationally crashing anachronism, as when one of the two young bucks sums up his attitude to women as a case of "wham, bam, thank you, ma'am", it is full of cunning locutions that unlock the unlovely male mentality of the time and the rearguard actions of the young women who now have the dubious privilege of coping with men who are prepared to be (to a certain extent) programmatically upfront about their shittiness. In the first half, a party from hell (all drunken homoerotic horseplay from the men as they attempt to molest the women) is brought to a devastating close when the black-garbed cuckolded husband (a softly chilling Andrew Wincott) arrives and, with the hint that this may be a paper trail to death and perdition, distributes the cuckold's folded billets-doux to his wife around the flat.
Dispensing witless, chauvinist puns, Jack Laskey is authentically obnoxious as the sensation-seeking, sexist sidekick. In an auspicious stage debut, Tom Hughes radiates a compelling mix of would-be cool and boyish desperation as the shifty youth who is challenged to a duel. All terminally neat, scraped-back dowdiness, Hayley Carmichael is bottled essence of resentful puritan reproof as a nosy neighbour.
To 10 April (020 7922 2922; www.youngvic.org ); then touringReuse content