Thursday, 2 March 2017

REVIEW: Roundelay at Southwark Playhouse

In a society where we are continuously exposed to sexual references, and all taboos seem to have been already broken, there is still a certain resistance towards sex involving older bodies. In an attempt to overcome this inhibition, playwright Sonja Linden has written Roundelay, a circus-themed collection of vignettes inspired by Arthur Schnitzler's 19th century play La Ronde. 

Initially banned for its explicit contents, La Ronde was meant to question the morals and ideology of the contemporary Austrian society and show how sexual attraction disregards the differences between classes. With this purpose in mind, Sonja Linden has created a vivid metaphor of the circus of life, where the boundaries that get surpassed no longer relate to the characters' social position but, instead, to their age. 

Following a circular structure, Roundelay presents couples of mature actors in apparently self-contained episodes which, as the performance goes on, we discover to be all, somehow, related. The interval between scenes is entrusted to the wit and wisdom of ringmistress Clare Perkins, whose saucy comments help to build an earnest connection with the audience, whilst reminding us all that love is the engine of life and, for the same reason, is bound to be alive as long as we live. Her public shaming of a spectator who dared getting his phone out during an act was priceless too . . . I only wish there were more of those reactions in live theatre! 

It goes without saying that, as a proper circus of life, Roundelay is played in the round – in the middle of a ring replica, designed by Moi Tran – but this arrangement, despite helping to maintain the analogy, comes with some practical limitations. With the performance alternating moments of dynamism with longer sequences where the actors didn't move much, I found myself on a number of occasions staring helplessly at their backs. It would appear that director Anna Ledwich instructed the cast to turn around regularly, but the restriction was still noticeable. 

The amazing ten performers displayed multiple skills and conveyed a strong
energy. Aerialist Anna Simpson regaled us with a breathtaking silks act, whereas eclectic musician Ru Hamilton was in charge of the live score with a clarinet, a flute, a saxophone and even a cello. The commitment delivered on stage was matched only by their clear enjoyment and the level of experience and professionalism was impressive. A special mention goes to Annie Firbank, who has just started her seventh decade of career, and, on this occasion, was irreverently superb in the role of Evelyn. 

Roundelay is an ode to the ups and downs of love and sex, but also a more concrete celebration of diversity and inclusion in the world of the performing arts. Watching this imaginative and frisky play was a real delight but, behind its facetious appearance, hides the endeavour to come to terms with not being young anymore. In this case, age isn't taken too seriously but the topic is utterly resounding and, hopefully, the cast of Roundelay will have taught us something precious about it. 

Review by Marianna Meloni 

Rating: ★★★★

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