“A fierce accomplishment”

Will Austin is absorbed in 'Reigen', a revival of Arthur Schnitzler’s controversial sexual drama

In 1903, students at the University of Munich gave a performance of Arthur Schnitzler’s newly published Reigen (which translates as a ‘round dance’), a play interrogating the class structure of fin-de-siècle Vienna through a tag-team sequence of sexual encounters between members of its society.

In this play, each character forms a link in a chain—prostitute meets soldier, soldier meets parlour-maid, parlour-maid meets young gentleman – so that eventually even a count is implicated in the debauchery, laid bare (in multiple ways) by that great equaliser, a sexual appetite. As hierarchies began to dissolve in Schnitzer’s play, so did the reputations of those student actors, who were expelled from their studies by Germany’s culture minister. That’s just the beginning of the history of a play which became bound up in Austro-Hungarian politics like no other: demonised by anti-Semitic nationalists, blasted in the Viennese parliament and then banned as pornography, disappearing from the European stage until 1982 (sixty years after its last performance).

Cut to 2017 and The Oxford German Play, led by director Louise Mayer-Jacquelin, have attempted to add a fresh chapter to that history. They’ve done so by bringing a reflexivity to the text which was barely present in the original, and are highly successful in showcasing it both as historical rarity and relevant postmodern discourse.

The innovations are apparent even on first entering the studio. The set comprises an array of furniture under white sheets, as if in storage. In the centre is a costume rack: it is around this rack that the actors – playing actors – first assemble, dressed in black and talking amongst themselves. Then they draws lots from a hat in order to assign parts, remiscent of Max Gill’s London production in February of this year (although that production was truly random: this one is not).

Roles assigned the actors dress, and act. The costuming is troublingly inconsistent: although ostensibly keeping to a fin-de-siècle Viennese setting, the Soldier resembles a U.S. Marine. However Ruth Eichinger, who doubles both as Soldier and Young Wife (calculated to emphasise the play’s feminist current), is superb in her characterisation. Similar praise goes to Philip Schimpf (Parlour Maid and Husband), as well as Steph Spreadborough (Sweet Young Thing): Schnitzer’s dialogue is at its sharpest in the scenes involving these three. The narrative introduction to the fourth scene (during which a cast member reads aloud Schnitzer’s stage directions, which are hurriedly followed by the Gentleman), is a highlight.

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Although a few mistakes creep into the acting as the play progresses (there are also hiccups with the subtitling, leaving this monoglot grasping for a phrase-book), the final scene is brilliantly crafted by Mayer-Jacquelin. In another innovation, she has all the characters enter the stage in a movement that is half dance, half orgy. In pairs they partially undress each other, then exit: the discarded clothes remain to form the squalor of the prostitute’s room, which is the setting of the scene proper. Clever.

The whole, with its slick acting and illuminating reflexivity, is a fierce accomplishment. No student expulsions will be required after this production.