Russ Hunt's Reviews

The Blue Room
by David Hare

Windsor Theatre (Mount Allison University)
February 2005

David Hare's The Blue Room has a couple of strikes against it to begin with. It is essentially a modernization of Arthur Schnitzler's fin-de-siecle sexual daisy chain, originally called Der Reigen, but more well known, because of the Max Ophuls movie version, as La Ronde, and it has been seen as sharing with them a kind of easy cynicism, an unearned, supercilious dismissal of the sexual adventurism of our modern age: a kind of all-purpose "ain't it awful" for the cognoscenti. Perhaps even worse, Hare's version has been saddled, since its opening in London in 1998, with the expectation that the ten wildly disparate characters who participate in Hare's hands around will be played by two virtuoso actors, and that perhaps it needs that display of virtuosity to hold our attention.

An attentive look at the script, though, will show that the brilliant Hare -- whose Skylight received a fine production by TNB in 1999 -- is not working that far below form here. True, we don't get much in the way of character development (each of the ten characters appears in two scenes and then vanishes), and there's not a great deal of plot structure (that the play comes full circle, with the first character reappearing in the last scene, verges on the mechanically predictable). But there are some arresting dramatic moments, some powerful resonance across separate scenes, and, yes, there's some pretty stinging satire.

The problem for an amateur company is how to handle the ten completely different sets, the radical costume changes needed between them, and, of course, the issue of casting. I was interested in how these challenges might be taken up by the Windsor Theatre in Sackville. Some responses, of course, are predictable: getting ten actors to work on two scenes each is actually something of a challenge for a professional theatre, but for a student theatre it's a positive advantage. The radical set changes are more difficult: one way would, of course, be simply to minimize sets radically, paint them out, as it were. But much of the play's satiric power lies in the contexts of these characters: from the bench on the street where The Girl (a prostitute) accosts a cab driver, to the "wealthy bedroom" where The Married Woman (whom we've just seen at an assignation in a student's bedroom) listens to her husband dithering on about the richness of the experience of real marriage, to a "self-consciously artistic" studio in "a bohemian part of town," all the physical contexts matter in shaping how we see the characters. What director Cordula Quint and her company do is move that process of context construction right to center stage: during the show the cast sits to left and right of the stage, and when the lights go down at the end of a scene the cast simply dives in and moves things around -- including seven eight foot tall triangular columns which form various free-form backdrops for the scenes. Within the limits of a student production budget, and with some subtle, precise lighting by Paul Del Motte, the furniture and props provided by Decima Mitchell manages to convey enough of the atmosphere of the scenes to give the actors something to work against.

And while the beehive of activity switches scenes, the character who bridges the two scenes does a costume change directly in front of us, at center stage, keeping our attention precisely on the fact that the character is bridging the scenes.

As always, in student productions, the level of performance varies from actor to actor (and presumably from performance to performance). And with a script like The Blue Room, there's not a lot to be said about ensemble: the ten scenes become almost audition pieces. Among the most affecting on Friday night were The Student (Doug Hann, nicely pretentious and sophomoric) entertaining The Married Woman (Sarah Smith, wonderfully desperate and condescending, powerful and victimized at the same time) in his bedroom, and then the same Married Woman patiently listening while her husband, Michael Bumsted, phony and voluble as The Politician, reels off his desperate self-deceiving lies about marriage. Even more broadly satiric is The Playwright, played with a wonderfully self-absorbed pomposity by Jesse McNichol, completely dumbfounded at the fact that The Model (charmingly empty-headed and cuddly, as played by Genevieve Fleming) doesn't have the faintest idea who he is.

If there were some characters who weren't quite as convincing, and if there were some holes in the production (I missed the Playwright's computer, which is mentioned but which was unaccountably absent, and indeed his studio didn't seem quite dark enough to be lit only by his ostentatious candelabra), it was still a production which helped all of us to feel David Hare's satiric ambivalence about his desperate, lost sexual adventurers. The music which "engulfs" each couple in the darkness at the, shall we say, climactic moment of each scene, courtesy of sound designer Tim Jones, worked as well as I imagine the valse triste that got Schnitzler's company in such trouble in 1920 did, and even though at the end we may have remained just slightly unsatisfied as the characters, during the bows, rearranged the pillars into a blank, forbidding wall, it was, all things considered, a Blue Room that did Hare's script justice.

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