The choice of Reigen as the annual Oxford German Play was inspired. Written by the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler, and first performed in Berlin in 1920, contemporary audiences greeted it with outrage, disgust and horror – because Reigen is a play about sex. It is a play, put simply, about human desires and the fulfilment of these desires; about the need for forming connections, no matter how fleeting; and about human instincts which, almost a century later, are still pertinent to the modern audience, even though a play about sex is no longer scandal-inducing.
Reigen opens with a babble of semi-comprehensible German, following which each of the characters in turn draws a slip of paper from a hat. A somewhat shapeless form, until this moment concealed under a white sheet, is revealed to be a (circular) clothes rack, from which the characters take a prop corresponding with the role they are to play: a silk scarf, a feather boa, a waistcoat. What commences is a sequence of ten scenes, each one portraying the before and after of a sexual encounter between two characters, starting with a prostitute and a soldier, then the soldier with a maid, and ending with an encounter between a count and the prostitute. This forms a circle, a ‘round dance’ – for this is how ‘Reigen’ can be translated –encompassing many echelons of society, documenting dalliances which cross social boundaries.
The tension between the ability of sex to erase differences between classes – as expressed by the count as he watches the prostitute sleeping and observes that “sleep does make us all equal” – and the way in which the social situation of the participants can influence the power dynamics of sex is a key theme – perhaps most poignantly in the scene between the Maid, portrayed sensitively by Philip Schimpf, and the Young Gentleman (Linus Ubl). Another aspect that allows this tension to be explored is the metatheatrical nature of the piece: the initial sequence, in which each of the performers pulls a piece of paper from the hat, combined with the performers themselves rearranging the stage for each scene, conveys the idea that there is a certain arbitrariness, something that one cannot control, over which position you occupy in society – and, because there is a sense that the performers could have selected any slip of paper with any role written on it, that there is ultimately a common foundation linking all people.
But this is far from a play that takes itself too seriously.
This is further demonstrated by the common feelings – a desire to feel loved, to feel closeness, to feel wanted – exhibited across all of the social classes, and which are independent of time: this performance of Reigen demonstrates that these feelings are timeless. While watching, it is difficult not to compare the on-stage proceedings – and the issues, such as the importance of open conversation and recognition of each other’s different needs – to one’s own, present day, situation.
But this is far from a play that takes itself too seriously. There is plenty of humour, with all-too-knowing chuckles accompanying the Husband’s attempts to explain to the Wife why it is of course perfectly clear that she must have the same opinions as he does, and why such values as ‘truthfulness and purity’ are so important for her to pursue, but don’t need to apply to him. It is for such plays that the almost too-close-for-comfort Burton Taylor Studio is so well-suited – even from the back row, the proximity between performers and audience allows the well-measured facial expressions, conveying everything from elation to confusion to fear, to be appreciated, imparting a sense of connection that you simply don’t get in larger theatres. On this note, the acting was spot-on – the stand-out perhaps being Ubl in his role as the ridiculous, infatuated Young Gentleman – with, for example, the Poet (Stephen Jones) brilliantly unaware of his own preposterousness, and the empowering desire of the Young Wife (Ruth Eichinger) to find satisfaction and pleasure (‘Vergnügen’) when her husband is uninteresting and unwilling to provide it.
Overall, Reigen presents a thoughtful, poignant and humorous consideration of human nature and, subsequently, the role of sex in society – specifically, the way in which it creates connections and reflects and breaks power relations – for the two cannot really be separated. Other than a few technical difficulties with the subtitles, rendering it challenging for non-German speakers (or those of us who study German but whose ability to follow spoken German is in need of improvement…) to always follow what was happening, the cast and crew of this year’s Oxford German Play have pulled off what could have been a potentially cringe-inducing play with a thoughtful and thought-provoking balance of subtlety and boldness.