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ARCHIVE PAGE FOR - The Blue Room (Donmar 1998)

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A play based on La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler and freely adapted by David Hare. Directed by Sam Mendes.

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Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen star in this eagerly awaited revival.

Donmar Warehouse Theatre Previewed 10 September, Opened 22 September 1998, Closed 31 October 1998

Extracts from the reviews:

"The one thing you cannot do when reviving a 98-year-old play is to recreate the shock of the new. Even Scotland Yard's vice squad is unlikely to mimic the Vienna police who closed down the first public performance in 1921 of Arthur Schnitzler's Reigen, here retitled The Blue Room, and prosecuted him for obscenity. 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. The play's ten roles of coupling couples are played by two actors - Iain Glenn and Nicole Kidman. In the opening scene Kidman is waiflike and scrawny, looking startling like a Nineties rethink of Twiggy with vowels to match. She's chatted up by Glenn'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 carefully contrived daisy-chain of brief encounters. 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. We see the lust the leading on, the luring, but not the act. Everything cuts to blackout and is wittily followed by the timing of the act being flashed up on the back wall. Given the often wildly mismatched pairings, it's not surprising that these range between hours and, funniest of all, the zero seconds of premature ejaculation. It is no surprise that this updated and very free adaptation comes from David Hare. Glenn plays Hare's men as increasingly removed and feckless or, as with the deliciously played romantic playwright, supremely self-absorbed. By contrast Kidman's superbly differentiated gallery of women - from skittish, deerlike prostitute to an hilariously grand, throaty actress - all turn out to be victims. For all the production's sheer wit and beautifully played brio you cannot escape the sensation that we've been here before." David Benedict, The Independent

"With Sam Mendes as the director, David Hare as the writer/adapter and above all with the achingly beautiful Hollywood star Nicole Kidman in one of the two leading roles, this was always going to be an exceptionally hot ticket. I have to admit, however, that I fought my way through the paparazzi fearing that we might just be in for a real bummer of an evening. Hollywood stars don't always deliver the goods on the London stage - indeed a couple of years ago Raquel Welch was so terrible on tour that she never made it into town at all. More worrying still, The Blue Room is based on Arthur Schnitzler's turn-of-the-century Viennese play La Ronde, much loved in the Max Ophuls film version, but a piece that almost always fails to live up to its risque reputation on stage. Schnitzler certainly came up with a neat and daring idea, a daisy chain of sexual encounters in which A sleeps with B who sleeps with C until we finally work our way back to A. In performance, however, the play usually seems drearily mechanical, tritely cynical and about as sexy as cold rice pudding. That is reckoning without the talent on display here. Hare's free adaptation brings the piece bang up to date, set in modern London with the shadow of Aids looming in the background. His script is also packed with excellent jokes. Mendes directs with precision and wit - all 10 sex scenes take place in a black out, with a caption drily informing us just how long each coupling lasts - though this most humane of directors also finds moments of unexpected warmth undreamt of by Schnitzler. Mark Thompson contributes a neon-lit set of impeccable minimalist cool, and there is a hip electronic score by Paddy Cuneen. Best of all, there are Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen, each of them playing five characters apiece with bravura, skill, real feeling and a sexual charge that at times threatens to blow the roof off the theatre. Everyone's reaction to this show is going to be conditioned by their own sexual preference. Even I found time to notice that Iain Glen is a very handsome hunk with fine cheekbones who ranges from London cab driver through awkward student to hilariously affected playwright with superb detail and definition. Most of the time, though, I had eyes only for Nicole Kidman. Eyes on stalks in fact. She's drop-dead gorgeous, bewitchingly adorable and unfortunately she doesn't get her kit off nearly as often as Mr Glen; you are, however, treated to some tantalising, willowy glimpses that are far more erotic than a brazen full-frontal. The vision of her wafting around the stage with a fag in one hand and her knickers in the other as a delicious French au pair will haunt my fantasies for months. There is a danger of this review turning into something out of the readers' letters column in Penthouse, not to mention the risk of a terrible row with the wife. So I had better add that Kidman is also a terrific actress who brings all five of her roles to instantly distinctive life, whether she's playing a cheap tart, a sophisticated married woman, a coke-sniffing waif of a model or a femme fatale of an actress. The play still strikes me as a cleverly executed, glibly cynical jeu d'esprit, rather than a profound meditation on human relationships. In this production, however, you might just as well lie back and enjoy the sheer style and sexuality on display: it's pure theatrical Viagra." Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph

"It was when they hauled on a very smart kitchen-sink unit, setting the scene for a student's seduction of an au pair girl, that I began to feel David Hare was artfully diluting an original bitter sexual cocktail. His Blue Room filters the twilight world of the heterosexual through an opulent glow of modishness. Hare has played loose and clever with a famous old Austrian play: in Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, 10 couples guiltily find pleasure in each other before they separate and are linked in a sexual daisy-chain. So Hare's gentle comedy of sexual manners displaces Schnitzler's serious drama of sex and betrayal. The change is not always for the theatrical better. But there remains at least one alluring compensation not to say come-on. All five females are played in varieties of figure-hugging, titillatingly minimal dress by Nicole Kidman who proves there's more to her than meets the eye. Iain Glen as her various partners in sex is eventually reduced to his bare essentials as if to prove he can mount as spectacular an erotic show. Sexual relations, though, as Schnitzler conveyed them, undergo a sea-change thanks to Hare's devising. He transports the original from the Vienna of 1898 to rich London 1998. Sam Mendes's production, with Mark Thompson as his designer, oozes flashy post-modern sumptuousness. The stage shimmers in blue light and neon signs, with film captions and crackling electronic sounds to signal the time taken before orgasm. Since Kidman and Glen look like successful models they give the sexual encounters a fierce glamour. Their couplings in modish beds, luxurious places or even a designer brothel advertise sex as a recreation for chic, rich beautiful people. Schnitzler's original was more earthy and tense. It roamed around Vienna with sex furtively undertaken in parkland and parlour, drawing room and whore-house. His characters dared to defy rigid class and marriage barriers. The tone was suitably serious-sardonic: in those days syphilis killed, adultery really wrecked women's lives. There was no state-aid to save pregnant servant girls from ruin. Hare's cast of Nineties characters live in a world from which such serious worries have mainly vanished. His au pair girl, coke-taking, teenage model, adulterous New Labour politician, West End actress and student seducer are pained but not ruined by desire. Hare, therefore, arranges a far lighter comedy of sexual manners without real after-doses of pain when encounters end. Only his smug politician, specialising in "presentation and lies" has much social though not sexual bite to him. Miss Kidman lacks much theatrical experience. But all five roles are in her elegant, confident grasp. She's firmly set in the glow of her sex appeal. So there's not that much difference in the manners of her French au pair and cockney tart. But she manages all the accent and attitudes in neatly provocative performances. She slips into sex play and display to the manner born, sending up the role of an actress in full preen. Mendes's super-cool, hip production relies more on the smartness of its atmosphere than emotions. No surprise then that Glen, usually a front-rank, truthful actor gives a disappointingly histrionic set of performances. Only as an aristocrat, wreathed in old-fashioned anxieties does Glen really enthuse Hare's interesting view of how desire makes fools of us all." Nicholas de Jongh, The London Evening Standard

"Yes, Nicole Kidman can certainly act. So too can Iain Glen. And Sam Mendes is an excellent director. But if The Blue Room is something short of a triumph, the reason lies in David Hare's decision to update Schnitzler's 1900 erotic masterpiece, La Ronde, and treat it as an ironic commentary on the gulf between dreams and reality: the result is a curious hybrid that sacrifices much of the original's social satire and lambent melancholy. Hare has stuck faithfully to Schnitzler's structure: a sexual daisy-chain depicting 10 pairs of interlocking lovers. He also shows how the sundry couplings constantly lead to remorse, regret, a puzzled tristesse or a brutal indifferance to the object of passion. But Hare has also freely altered the characters and the social context: thus in the opening scene a prostitute encounters a screw-and-run cab driver rather than a heartless soldier and in the next scene the cabbie meets a coolly contained an pair at a party rather than a housemaid on her Sunday night off. You could argue that human folly hasn't changed much during the century and that we still project our dreams and fantasies on to our partners. But SchnitzIer was writing about a deeply stratified society -fin de siecle Vienna - in which aristocrats and officers playacted their way through life and were surprised when they provoked tragedy: a classic case is Schnitzler's sweet young girl from the suburbs who here becomes a hip, 17-year-old coke-sniffing model who has drugged sex with her politician-lover. Schnitzler's subtle point about innocence and experience turns into something much more obvious about the private hypocrisy of public men. Marber's Closer, with its portrait of the spiritual solitude underlying modern sexual freedom, seems in many ways closer to Schnitzler than this free adaptation. It is, in fact, Hare's comic scenes that come off best and that show Kidman to be a superb character-actress. She is vividly funny as a politician's wife viewing her student-lover's impotence with wry tolerance and even better as a posturing actress who treats sex as an extension of her on-stage performance and who talks of the theatre as "a low drizzle of persistent complaint". But Kidman switches personae with consummate ease, endowing the prostitute of the opening and closing scenes with a bruised loneliness. She is not just a star: she genuinely delivers the goods. Like Kidman, Glen also takes off in the comic scenes where the writing is at its sharpest: he visibly relishes his moment as a vain playwright who prides himself on the size of his vocabulary and who cannot believe his lover is unaware of his public renown. While the evening is full of sensual delight and Mendes's production smooth as silk, I still feel that Hare, in adapting Schnitzler, has also diluted him." Michael Billington, The Guardian

 
 
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