Ring-a-ring o’roses, a suitcase full of condoms

Reigen by/inspired by Arthur Schnitzler, at the Bronski & Grünberg Theatre (Vienna, 9th district) May 2019.

As I exited the U-Bahn on Schottenring into pouring spring rain and scurried towards Bronski & Grünberg, I thought, not for the first time, what an odd comfort it is to live in a place as infuriating as Vienna. It might be world-class at whining and its people have some of the worst public transport manners I have ever seen, but there is an underlying charm which – as a sort of fake Viennese person – I might see differently from the other natives. It might well be Stockholm Syndrome, but I like the contradictory nature of this city. Like in many places, there has been a century-long attempt to pin down definitely what the spirit of Vienna, and the Viennese is. There are some clichés, some of which are true (see three sentences ago) But like with most places, there’s no one easy answer to what exactly Vienna’s genius loci is. Some attempts are better than others, however, and one of the really good ones was Arthur Schnitzler’s scandalous Reigen, first performed in 1920 and causing one of the biggest theatre scandals of the 20th century.

The play is a series of scenes of each two players, always a male/female pair, who engage in carnal relations (these were not shown on stage then, and also not in the Bronski & Grünberg production). The twist is that each new scene features one partner of the previous scene. So, none of the lovers show fidelity or any remorse for their behaviour, which was unsurprisingly received with complete horror at the time. Today, it is hard to recreate the shock value it had in the day, and this 2019 production wisely does not attempt to.

But the shock value is not the implied sex per se. It’s the brutal cynicism about relationships and people, which many say characterise the real Viennese spirit, much like Karl Krauss or Alfred Polgar. This type of clever black humour experienced its highlight between the wars (before the Nazis doused any and all creative spark) in the 20s and 30s. This particular brand of culture is “world-famous in Vienna”, to obscurely paraphrase an Austropop reference, meaning that while Schnitzler and his ilk are common knowledge among the Viennese, it does not seem to extend beyond the boundaries of the city. A quick survey (read: I asked two non-Viennese mates) showed that some Austrians had never even heard of Schnitzler, something kids in Vienna have been made to read when they are in high school for the past few decades. So I am definitely not assuming this play is common knowledge for a non-Viennese audience.

I was delighted by the production in the theatre in Vienna’s 9th district. There is an active engagement with Schnitzler’s piece, picking at the parts which are problematic, overly cynical and by modern standards, sexist.

As a teenager, I thought the Reigen was hilarious, mostly because relationships were still highly conceptual at the time. Rereading it as an adult is an entirely different experience. This production managed to make me laugh again, in recognition, and also in relief, as the talented team shifted the focus to highlight the nonsensical nature of the male characters, and giving the female characters more agency. This is welcome, as the original seems to work from the perspective of the male character, regardless which person was in the previous scene.

It also avoids the pitfalls of a different production I saw in the early 2000s, which attempted to recreate the shock effect by having actors quite graphically simulate sex on stage, and the effect was less shock, but more British second-hand embarrassment for the actors, who were clearly not as into it as the text would suggest.

The emphasis on the female characters was very much the highlight of the B&G production. The play includes a couple of male characters who are calling out for mockery. One is the petulant young man, who here falls into a kind of political farce; a good thought, but ham-handed in execution as it weakened his first scene, especially compared to his excellent second scene. Another farcical character is the artist, who pooh-poohs his working-class girlfriend for bowing to the man by having a job, but lives in an apartment which belongs to his father, “that fascist”. Other men are made to be faintly pathetic, like the duke, who leaves after being forced to use a new kind of contraceptive, tail (more or less literally) between his legs, or pitiable, like the husband, whose tastes run more to Freddie Mercury than his wife.

The women are mostly long-suffering, some more reticent and pragmatic, others more flamboyant, one – the actress – even taking to an almost literal soapbox to explain why condoms are actually the best, male pleasure be damned. The art direction works wonders with the minimalist props and set design, and the idea of switching era every scene works surprisingly well. The costumes and mannerisms go a long way to selling us on the period (I was especially enamoured with the artist’s 60s getup – a baggy jacket over a turtleneck sweater, and that thick spiky hair). Occasionally, during some of the more rambunctious scenes, I had mild concerns for the scenery, but it remained intact. Personal highlights include, but are not limited to – a mating dance including red speedos and a handstand, a genderswapped intro to Sex and the City, complete with Cosmopolitan, an enormous fake penis taped (slight precariously) over an actual penis, and a man in a bathtub singing a soft, mournful song about his wilting erection. I would strongly recommend the play, which is still on in June. The theatre itself is also a delight, with that aesthetic of messed up chic and laid-back staff. The looping Beatles soundtrack in the bar area might have me biased, but it certainly helped.

It was still raining when we left, but the rain was warm and inoffensive, so my friend and I walked back to Schottentor. Riding the U-Bahn back to my own district-village (I will talk about Vienna being a group of villages rather than a city some other time), I realised that the reason this production pleased me so much is because it showed more nuance. Schnitzler’s original is brilliant and cynical, but it does not offer any narrative relief, which was funny to me at 16, and depressing at 30. This version gives us hope. Of course relationships don’t last, and people don’t think much of hopping from one person to another, regardless of what other partners think. But there are moments that matter, and people who still stick to each other. I think of the wife of the Freddy Mercury fan, and how she gets straight past her own bias to be kind again to her husband, in one of the plays more touching moments. It’s a balancing act, like many things, and between its lines, I think it might represent Vienna better than the original.

If you don’t believe me, consider this:

Very recently, several portraits of Holocaust survivors (part of a public exhibition in central Vienna) were sliced into pieces. A day later, groups gathered to sew the pictures back up, and stood in the rain for days, guarding the pictures from future attacks.

There’s more to this city than cynicism and nihilism, fun though those things are, and that’s a comforting thought.

You can see the Reigen at Bronski & Grünberg until mid-June.