This loose adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde follows a circular chain of indulgence and infidelity, tracking the partners in a series of sexual relationships as they meet to enjoy their intimacy. Some of the hook-ups are illicit; some are anything but; some are gay, some are straight, some are casual and some are loving. The only common themes are the sex itself, and the heartbreak it occasionally causes.
The details are often hilarious. There are comic changes of pace - unexpected bursts of energy injected into seemingly languid scenes - and some glorious, entirely inoffensive stereotypes, ranging from the middle-aged couple and their fixation with domestic chores to the charming but self-absorbed French poet. There are neat one-liners to enjoy as well (including one daringly on-the-nose Jeremy Corbyn gag), and a cringe-inducing illustration of what happens when a man who’s led a sheltered life ends up on Grindr.
But there’s a subtler, more downbeat story threaded through the humour. Later scenes often cast new light on earlier ones, and monologues which at first seemed abstract and droll are shown to have a far more poignant meaning. Central to this is Rosie - superbly played by Eimear Lacey - whose engaging but wearying kookiness evolves into a convincing portrayal of a deeply troubled mind. Rosie is tearing herself apart, and it’s harrowing.
The whole circus is supervised by the eponymous Ringmaster, who narrates the story and often inserts herself into the unfolding vignettes. Emily Bates brings emotional depth to this complex role, hinting that the Ringmaster’s imperious tone is shielding a deep inner pain. While it’s fair to say that not all the cast are quite so strong, the execution was flawless on the night I attended, and the carefully-choreographed physical scenes are a recurring and expressive highlight.
Devised work always risks lapsing into self-indulgence; Ringmaster generally avoids that trap, though a couple of the ideas they play with don't entirely justify their inclusion. Conversely, some of the clever meta-theatrics might warrant more development and stage time. There’s a genuinely intriguing thread about the Ringmaster’s power over these characters - she can summon, change and control them, yet they do have ideas of their own - but the ending felt too hurried, and there’s more here that could have been explored.
Overall though, Ringmaster is hugely enjoyable: sexually frank without being tawdry, and filled with unexpected humour. The story it tells is affecting in places, and it succeeds in lending a sense of shape and purpose to what could have been simply disconnected scenes. It’s another strong showing from the Network Theatre Company - and a clever contemporary adaptation, which references the century-old original text, but doesn’t feel constrained or beholden to it.