by Joe DiPietro • dir Mark Barford
with Richard De Lisle, August Ohlsson, Liam Darby
King's Head Theatre, Islington • 16.May-2.Jun.18
Tony-winning playwright Joe DiPietro's provocatively titled play comes back to the King's Head Theatre, where it first premiered in 2009. Based on Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde (1897), it's a series of encounters between 10 characters, this time with a cast of three performing multiple roles. Ostensibly about sex, the play is actually an astute exploration of masculinity and culture, grappling with expectations, sexuality, monogamy and trust. It's a beautifully written piece that continually surprises the audience with its astute observations, never becoming preachy despite touching on pungent issues like relational fidelity, closeted celebrities, safe sex and HIV.
Each actor plays three or four roles, switching accents and attitudes so the audience can keep up. Scenes unfold as encounters between two men who discuss and negotiate the terms of sex between them - as a hooker and his john, as partners dealing with relationship issues, as a porn star and a phone-app hook-up, as a playwright and a big Hollywood actor, as a TV presenter and a rent boy. Most of these may end up with some sort of sexual activity, but the real point is that none of these men is quite sure of the rules of combat, as it were. All are a little deceptive even as they are yearning for a connection and hoping for something lasting.
All three actors are excellent. The veteran of the cast, De Lisle has appeared in previous productions and brings an easy authenticity to each role, shifting dramatically between characters without even needing to change costume. Newcomers Ohlsson and Darby both bring distinctive jolts of energy to the production in their various roles, revealing telling details that engage the audience even with more prickly characters. The way the scenes weave together into an overarching narrative is riveting, coming full circle to end on a note that's revelatory without having a specific message. But the play touches on so many deeply personal topics that each person in the audience will see him or herself on-stage while pondering issues that used to seem obvious.