Theatre: The lust, the leading on, the lure

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The Independent Culture
THE ONE thing you cannot do when reviving a 98-year old play is to recreate the shock of the new. Even Scotland Yard are unlikely to mimic the Vienna police who closed down the first public performance in 1921 of Arthur Schnitzler's hitherto unperformed Reigen (subsequently filmed in 1950 as La Ronde and here retitled The Blue Room), and prosecuted him for obscenity. No surprise there. Schnitzler's view at the time was that his series of 10 loosely connected sexual scenes was unprintable, much less stageable.

If there is any unusual frisson to Sam Mendes's breathlessly chic new production, it isn't because of the frank depiction of dangerous liaisons, but because of the casting. In common with Mike Alfred's feted 1982 production for Shared Experience, the play's 10 couples are played by two actors - Iain Glen and Nicole Kidman.

In the opening scene, on Mark Thompson's spare, elegant blue set, Kidman is waif-like and scrawny, looking startling like a Nineties' rethink of Twiggy with vowels to match.

There's a touching air of vulnerability about her tough, brittle manner as she's chatted up by Glen's cocksure cab driver who refuses to pay for her services as he's "just spent the lot on sushi". Nonetheless, they have sex there and then.

The play is a daisy-chain of encounters, a buffet of gender roles, in which the men rise in status. The second scene sees the cab driver luring an au pair into having sex at a party. Cut to the au pair playing not- so-hard-to-get with the nervous son of smart employers.

Then the son steals time with a politician's wife... and so it goes on. In every instance we see the lust, the leading on, the luring, but not the act.

Everything cuts to blackout with a stab of sound, the fierce crackle of electrocution swiftly and wittily followed by the timing of the act being flashed up on the back wall. It is also no surprise that this updated and very free adaptation comes from David Hare, who has developed a sideline in excellent adaptations of other people's plays from Brecht's Galileo to his superb version of Chekhov's Ivanov. Hare's earliest play, Slag, had an all-female cast, and idealised women are at the heart of nearly all his work, but here he slightly overstates his case. Under Mendes's direction, Glen plays Hare's men as removed and feckless, or supremely self-absorbed.

By contrast, Kidman's marvellously differentiated gallery of women all turn out to be victims. In the penultimate scene an aristocrat calls her a "Bitch", then instantly revises his opinion: "Not a bitch. A goddess." For all the production's cool wit and bravura performances, you get the sensation that we've been here before.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper.