Is there anyone who ever imagined sex was going to be a simple act of coupling between two human beings? In Liz Lochhead’s What Goes Around, in which two actors play seven characters, drama and real life become as confused as the characters who pursue each other round and round on the merry-go-round of Glasgow’s multifaceted social scene.
Lochhead’s play, developed at the Tron Theatre from what she herself describes as “the most rudimentary and sketchy fragment of a script”, is one of many transformations of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play Reigen, which portrays the sexual mores of Vienna in the 1890s. This on-tour two-hander from Cumbernauld Theatre was a one-night performance for Dundee Rep, produced by Sarah Gray, directed by Tony Cownie, and acted by Nicola Roy and Keith Fleming. The plot daisy-chains a series of sexual encounters, both legal and illicit, on a quick-change conveyor-belt of overlapping five-minute bedroom farces, dazzling and bemusing the audience – in this case a disappointingly half-full theatre.
In this comment on sexual and social mores, the gloomy vestigial set, where a notional bed is the central point, is transformed into a series of Glasgow bedrooms. Power shifts uncertainly between sexual partners; women use men and men use women for their own purposes, professional and personal – the academic and the young working-class single mother; the middle class housewife and the carpenter she employs; the naïve but smart-talking young Glasgow actress and the famous actor, in rehearsal for this very play in its original form; and the single man and the married woman.
In each case, the woman enters the relationship – “coupling” would be a more appropriate term – as the weaker half of the twosome, but gradually takes over the reins in a world of lies, sexual intrigue and mutual back-biting. Theatre and real life are intertwined, often to the point where the audience is no longer sure which is which, whilst the dreaded and dictatorial female Eastern European director makes pronouncements over the Tannoy system, only occasionally appearing as a sort of managerial Cruella de Vil to direct her terrified cast.
Lochhead’s transposition of the action and dialogue to present-day Glasgow works only up to a point. An attempt at a distasteful and unnecessary Jimmy Saville joke about liking children hardly raised a smile with this otherwise largely appreciative audience, whilst the music, directed by Claire Mckenzie, consisted of recorded snatches of piano chords introducing new a scene, or of an accompaniment of phrases from folk and pop songs (“If You Were a Carpenter” was one of the more obvious ones).
A single eighty-minute act without an interval, this piece perhaps leaves the audience with an impression of something that is beginning to fall apart in the last twenty or so minutes of the play, or of something which is unfinished. Perhaps this is what Lochhead intended. It has certainly been produced on a shoestring, and much praise has to go to the two actors who managed what must have been an exhausting series of character and costume changes with remarkable aplomb.
Nevertheless, a certain sense of dissatisfaction remains. Nicola Roy’s characters lacked edge at times, often to the point where it was difficult to distinguish between them. Others may well have left the auditorium asking the same question as this theatre-goer: why does Lochhead’s clever writing and adaptation leave the audience with the impression that something has been happening on the stage to which they were not privy?