Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, The Blue Room is an adaptation of a play meant to expose the lack of sexual morals in (then Austrian) society. David Hare’s 1998 adaptation launched in a headline-grabbing blaze of publicity – star Nicole Kidman’s brief flash of nudity ensuring that the audiences piled in. Seemingly, nothing had changed in the intervening decades – sex continues to fascinate and crosses all boundaries.
A prostitute (Paida Noel) meets with a taxi-driver (Phil Barwood) and they share a steamy encounter by a river – the taxi driver then repeats his performance with an au-pair and so on until the circle is complete at the end when Barwood’s final character sleeps with the prostitute.
This may sound confusing as both actors take on five roles each but Barwood and Noel are adept at slipping in and out of these characters. The Blue Room is a hard play to capture the essence of on paper – certainly the two central performances are exceptionally impressive, yet it is easy to see why the actual story might leave some lost.
The key problem lies with David Hare’s text – the relationships are loveless, or in some cases hypocritical. The politician and his wife have a completely loveless relationship – and both are in fact seeing other partners rendering their relationship a sham – and being oddly timeless.
This could, in the hands of lesser actors have prevented audience engagement, but Barwood and Noel’s chemistry sustains the grim nature of Hare’s relationships. The men always win, and the women always get trampled on. It is not a flattering portrayal of relationships – but therein lies the point. The challenge is in getting this message across to the audience – fortunately this production manages that.
Tellingly, the sexual act is never shown on stage. We see the passion leading up to the act, and the sense of guilt, or loss, or even irritation at the end of it. And it is these emotional outbursts or feelings that frame these fleeting encounters. Much of the steam contained in The Blue Room simply evaporates leaving a set of awkward characters embarrassed at their irrational actions.
Noel’s tics and expressions are worth the price of entry alone. Her sheer nervousness at being seduced as the au-pair is shown by some lovely subtle movements – her turn-away, pulling down the hem of her skirt. Immensely watchable.
Barwood meanwhile plays an array of very sure male characters. He is able to balance fire with tenderness as his cheeky Cockney gives way to the conflicted politician. Certainly he can deliver on his nasty side – the audience more than once gasping at his dismissive swipes, but he can also switch to being ruthlessly charming in the space of a scene change.
Although the setting is ambiguous, there is a distinct urban feeling to the production – the studio flat set, the sodium-drenched lighting, the edgy soundtrack. This only serves to heighten the immediacy of the story – this is a situation that could be repeating ad nauseam just across the road.
Director Megan Marie Griffith keeps things moving with the sparse set that leaves props close at hand for scene transitions. By putting the actors amongst the audience, she alleviates some of the criticism previously levelled at The Blue Room as she fosters a curiously intimate atmosphere. It is testament to all involved that they have been able to pull off such a demanding performance in such little time.
The Fiction Stroker gives The Blue Room four strokes out of five: