Theatre review: The Blue Room

Dear Dad

Sex (still) sells, despite what some might say. Just head down to The Owl and the Pussycat now, if you need any convincing.

On attendance night, the theatre was nearly full, packed with people from the young (no, not kids, of course) to the doddery old. There were homosexuals, heterosexuals; there were talkers, and watchers, the chic, and the scruffy.

And what about theatre reviews? Barely one week since the opening show, and the web is already buzzing with a flurry of enthusiastic write-ups, that mostly only high-budget, high-profile productions seem able to enjoy.

When David Hare’s play, The Blue Room, opened in London in 1998, featuring Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen, people thronged their way to glimpse at Kidman’s bare buttocks. And when Simon Phillips staged a production at the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2002, ticket sales were phenomenal. So, things have hardly changed.

Adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s 1921 Reigen, this play is an interlocking lace of sexual rendezvous: a prostitute latches on to a taxi-driver, who coaxes his way into an au pair’s knickers, that gives exploitative pleasure to her employer’s son, who matures under the hands of a politician’s wife, her husband meanwhile wheedling a 17-year-old model, who is entranced by a playwright seeking inspiration from her and an actress, who tempts into her bosom an aristocrat, who turns out to be the first prostitute’s soul-searching client.

Yes, that was enervating to write, enervating too to watch. But that is perhaps the whole idea: through his wry social portrait, Schnitzler (a doctor) wants us to follow debauchery as it (and the diseases it carries) traverses its way through different classes of society. If the subterranean agenda is too subtle to deter, the sheer iteration of the theme itself becomes too tedious after a while.

Fortunately, director Jason Cavanagh has given his revival a decidedly light and engaging flourish, making the 120-minute production enjoyable to sit through, without compromising on the hollowness of those lives it conveys.

As with most of Hare’s writings, the script is woven with probing political questions: has the liberty our society craves for become too libertine for our own good, for example. And do the wealthy have more entitlement to freedom than the poor?

We do not get answers, as you’d expect, but what we get is an insight into how carnal desires have no respect for class, or any other boundary. It drives us, (often) defines us, and contrary to received wisdom, offers as much sensory gratification no matter who the co-participant, what the reasons for participation, or where.

Kaitlyn Clare and Zak Zavod play the woman and the man, each one taking on five roles, over 10 separate scenes.

Clare is a consummate performer who segues between characters, accents, and personas with flawless ease. She is scorching as the raunchy hooker, demure as the au pair, manipulative as the actress. Her angelic innocence as the young model enraptured by the playwright’s musical rendition is especially memorable. And her crisp English inflection, delicious French intonation are altogether pretty impressive. Most will agree she is one of the most talented, most exciting actresses to watch today.

While Zavod may not display as much versatility and flair as Clare, consistently pushy or aggressive in most of his personalities, he gives his final character a moving introspective journey. And, as his piano sequence demonstrates, his talent is nothing less than multi-faceted.

The shopfront venue in darkly trendy Richmond is ideal for The Blue Room, and the set is something of a portmanteau affair, with all the scenes folded more or less into the same intimate space. The grand finale, however, must count as the most unexpected, the lights, the street, the motion all conspiring to jolt us firmly back into reality.

There is more nudity here than in other productions, but far from hastening the activity of complex proteins, it seems to have the opposite effect. Although Clare’s body is as beautiful as a white marble sculpture, and Zavod’s trim physique just as enviable, I cannot help but feel how the first glance at the prostitute’s covered crotch was more prurient.

And is that not Schnitzler’s point: sex still sells, but sexual excesses are as counterproductive as always.

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