BUSAN, South Korea — Featuring an actor famously described as pure theatrical Viagra and another who performed naked cartwheels across the stage, the original 1998 London production of The Blue Room was a show that demanded to be seen. Notable for striking performances by Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen, each taking on the roles of five different characters, the play was celebrated as a frank and funny exploration of pre-millennial sexual politics.
Originally commissioned for the Donmar Warehouse in London, The Blue Room is an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play Reigen, also known as La Ronde. Schnitzler’s play, which was shut down by the Vienna police when it was eventually performed in 1921, is a circular series of two-handed scenes, featuring pre- and post-coital conversations between men and women of a variety of ages and social backgrounds. Using the same sexual daisy chain structure, David Hare’s version updates the action to an unnamed city in the 1990s, and explores the sex lives of ten modern urbanites, including a nervous student, a celebrated actress, an inexperienced prostitute, and the unsatisfied wife of an adulterous politician.
When Jennifer Howell, director of the upcoming Busan production of The Blue Room, first saw the play, she was overwhelmed by the erotic power of the performances, and the astute way the text tackles our endless search for pleasure and intimacy. I was amazed that a play could affect me so deeply on a visceral level, Jennifer says, but also make me think so much.
An experienced theatre director who founded Shakespeare in Busan, Jennifer was keen to bring a fresh eye to her production, and explore universal themes such as power in relationships, projection in love, how dynamics change before and after sex, and how we all search to connect but so often fail. To this end, she chose a cast of six women and four men, to showcase the wealth of acting talent among the expat community in Busan, and to open up the play beyond its original battle-of-the-sexes premise. As Jennifer says, both sexes objectify, both sexes manipulate, both sexes alienate themselves from each other, and the line between who is manipulating who is often played with, blurred and erased in her ambitious, highly charged production.
Jennifer is immensely proud of her diverse, dedicated cast, who have used trust, intelligence and hard work to create scenes of authentic, potent intimacy. With each character appearing in a pair of scenes, the play is an ensemble piece performed two trysts at a time, and the actors have all boldly committed to its physical and emotional demands. I’ve felt breathless watching them in rehearsals at times, the director explains, so if they can do that to me, I think they’ll mesmerize the audience.
Though never sexually explicit, the production is forthright in presenting the ways lovers flatter, promise and deceive, and so the rehearsal process was challenging and enlightening for Jennifer and her cast. For Shaheed Sabrin, who plays the Student, the key to unlocking his character was Hare’s stripped-down dialogue, which he describes as full of pulsing heartbeats: anticipating, engaging, or shutting down. Submitting to this rhythm has allowed Shaheed to explore some surprising and risky territory. Whatever I acted upon had to be from instinct, instead of pre-thought beliefs, he says. It has definitely made me confront my darkest desires.
De Anne Dubin, who plays the Married Woman, approached the physicality of her scenes as a choreographed dance made to look spontaneous, in which the smallest moves tell a larger story. She explains that the characters’ desires, hopes and fears reflect universal concerns, a sentiment echoed by Jenna Apollonia, who plays the Girl. Most, if not every, member of the audience will find at least one character they can relate to, says Jenna, who co-founded the Busan English Theatre Association and has been instrumental in bringing English language theatre to the city. The Blue Room is the sixth show Jenna has been involved with in Busan, and her favourite to date. This is something Busan has never seen before, she says. It is racy and exciting.
Though much of the heartbreak and humour in The Blue Room comes from the ways it portrays fissures in understanding, there are also moments of hope, empathy and tenderness. Sarah Dawn Lowry, who is the production’s stage manager and plays the Actress, sees one of the play’s more optimistic messages to lovers as keep trying; don’t give up. Her director agrees, adding that in most of the scenes at least one person’s heart is engaged, at least one person is reaching out. Jennifer notes that while the play shows its characters failing to connect, it also captures the desire to connect.
Watching the scenes take shape, Jennifer and Sarah Dawn were struck by the play’s relevance to life in 2013. In light of the drive for marriage equality, Sarah Dawn says that the production’s two lesbian scenes are extremely poignant right now, and as Jennifer points out, love is always relevant; sex is always relevant. As almost anyone can relate to, Jennifer confesses that much of my life has been spent puzzling out relationships, and whether you’re driven by love, intimacy, lust or a heady blend of all three, there’s something delightful, engaging and intoxicating waiting for you in The Blue Room.
The Blue Room is being performed for one weekend only:
November 9th at 7.30 p.m.
November 10th at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are free and available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Please arrive early to secure your seats. The theatre will open at 7 p.m.
The name of the theatre is ???????. It is located near Jungang station (metro stop #112 on the Orange #1 Line). The theatre entrance is just outside Exit 2, in the same building as the large bathroom design store. Look for the posters, enter the theatre via the door on the left and go to the 3rd floor.
This production is for over 19s only: it contains mature content and sexual situations. No food or drink allowed on premises. No photography of any kind. Violators will be escorted from the theatre.
Busan English Theatre Association Facebook page.