10 ROUNDS
Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 23 September, 2002

The sex is secondary. This may seem a strange thing to say about a play which is, in terms of structure at least, a version of Schnitzler's La Ronde. But in Carlo Gébler's 10 Rounds at the Tricycle, what's transmitted along the copulatory daisy-chain is not syphilis the price of illicit sex, as it were but a nugget of information which becomes the price of peace in post-Agreement Northern Ireland.

When a maverick Republican paramilitary kingpin couples with a prostitute, she remarks innocently that he smells, like her father, of the farm. But no wholesome rural reek, this: rather, the smell of fertiliser as used in massive car-bombs. This fact becomes pillow talk (or sofa, or wherever) in a series of further assignations, and thus convolutes its way through the media, political and security communities of the province. (It's a very un-Chinese whisper, though, and doesn't materially alter in the telling and re-telling.)

But the thing is, the information can't be acted upon. "Ten Rounds" Milligan's outfit is officially on ceasefire. He's clearly collaborating with dissidents, but nevertheless, if he were to be "lifted" by the security forces without hard and ostentatious evidence, it would look to the nationalist community like victimisation, leading to popular discontent and the shattering of the fragile peace. It is presumably this element which Gébler derived from the ombudsman's report into police handling of the Omagh bombing. The unpalatable complexity sneaks up on us indirectly, as it weaves in and out of the relevant ears rather than proceeding steadily towards the inevitable climax.

So the sex is secondary. But the dynamics of seduction, of power-play masquerading as romance, are none the less comprehensive and unflinching in their portrayal. Clare Holman's Wife casts about desperately for an excuse to let herself be coaxed into bed by Michael Colgan's predatory Student. Victoria Smurfit's Model stoically submits to a seeing-to from Tim Woodward's unappetising journalist (with an atrocious circuit-of-Ireland accent), because he promises her media exposure. Bríd Brennan as a republican politico is sexually Machiavellian as she reels in Stephen Boxer's comically oh-so-English government official.

It's sometimes trivially diverting, sometimes cynically entertaining, sometimes perplexing (as one wonders what A could ever see in B), but all shown in the same deliberately neutral moral light as Schnitzler's original. But if we think that this is just a rewrite of La Ronde with a Troubles background, we're mistaken. Rather, the circle of trysts is a pretext for the really unpleasant stuff: the intricate and distasteful compromises of building a house-of-cards peace process that accommodates even those who want nothing to do with it. The sex, as I may have mentioned, is secondary.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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