Charles Spencer famously declared that David Hare’s adaptation of La Ronde was “pure theatrical viagra”. Whether that was down to Nicole Kidman or Hare’s language is a matter for speculation. Joe Dipietro’s gay version of La Ronde is likely to have much the same effect – it’s a sensuous and involving dramatic achievement, bold, brave, tender and insightful. It’s also very funny. And with that asterisk, F*cking Men is a trifle coy – perhaps rather than theatrical viagra, this is theatrical ecstasy: everyone is relaxed and has a damn good time.

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…you have learned through intuition — though actually as a result of sensitive introspection — everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons.

Sigmund Freud, who is recorded as making that observation to Arthur Schnitzel about La Ronde, Schnitzel’s 1887 play, is not the only person to have been captivated and intrigued by Schnitzel’s work. La Ronde has been translated and adapted over and over again, perhaps most famously in London by David Hare (The Blue Room) and most unexpectedly in Michael John LaChiusa’s musical adaptation Hello Again. It’s been the subject of diverse film and television adaptations as well as many stage variations.

The title La Ronde (and the German original, Reigen) suggests a circular dance and this is reflected in Schnitzel’s form. Ten scenes featuring two characters in each scene, with one character from each scene appearing in the next, until the final scene which features a character from the first scene. Textual interludes break up the cycle, usually anticipating a conversation to occur in the next scene.

Schnitzel wrote the play in an era where adulterous affairs were common place, but discussions about sexual activity were not. His play, when it was finally performed in 1920, caused a sensation and he faced accusations of debauchery and moral turpitude. Schnitzel wanted to examine the reality of these behind-the-scenes sexual lives. He was interested in exploring feelings and the limited reward of instant sexual gratification.

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Now playing at The Vaults is Mark Barford’s essentially faultless production of F*cking Men, Joe Dipietro’s 2008 adaptation of Schnitzler’s classic. Unlike the original, this version is focused on sexual encounters involving homosexual or bisexual men of all classes and types, all armed with condoms and mobile phones. Like the original, it focuses on the sheen and shimmer of various sexual encounters, the ripples of awareness that radiate out from the grunt and thrust of random sex (voluntary or purchased) and poses profound questions about what cost comes from these moments in the dark.

The title is arresting but not indicative. Given how often the word fuck appears in the dialogue, it is curious that the title of the play skips the reality: why use the asterisk? Whose sensibilities are being assuaged? If someone is offended by the word in print they will scarcely opt to attend the theatre and observe the action. More than that, the sense of the circle is missing from the title and the expectation that arises from the title is quite different from the reality. The play is neither about fucking nor about men.

There is a surprising universality about the messages of the play, which apply equally to the exclusively heterosexual world as they do to any other. This is one of the very refreshing aspects of Barford’s production. Not only does it shine a very clear light into the modern world of gay hook-ups, but it speaks directly about all sexual encounters outside of committed relationships. It is not judgmental, but it is cathartic and enlightening.

Schnitzel did not want his play to focus on the actual act of fornication and Barford honours that intent, although there is, rightly, no shying away from nudity and representation of intercourse in various forms. Indeed, some encounters are graphically portrayed, but not in a titillating or gratuitous way. But the thrust of the play, so to speak, is not about sex itself, but the consequences, good and bad, that flow from indulgence and the arguments used by those who enjoy anonymous sex to convince themselves they are enjoying themselves.

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Originally, DiPietro’s play featured 10 actors. In this incarnation, only three actors play all of the characters and this brings an extra layer of universality to proceedings. The three actors provide faces to a range of characters – while the acting is sufficiently precise to ensure the audience always knows which character is which, the commonality of the faces suggests that the same types of considerations arise in many varied and contrasting situations. Over and over again.

In simple terms, this means you don’t need to be gay, or even to comprehend what it is to be gay, to enjoy and be educated by this production. F*cking Men has lessons, and food for thought, for everyone.

Great effort is made to imbue the proceedings with an almost balletic sensibility and this undertow of grace is very clever. It peaks in the scenes where pleasures of the body are being attained; the movements are stylised, and therefore detached. This lets them represent the release of orgasm as well as the cheating memory: things seem perfect and beautiful in the moment, and can do on reflection, but are they really like that?

And that is the point of F*cking Men: is the modern obsession with instantaneous sexual gratification absent emotional connection a fad, destructive or normal? Or something else?

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The entire production has a balletic approach. The performances are light and deft, virtuostic and appealing. Verbal pas des deux really. Jack Weir’s skilled use of light expertly evokes various scenes where encounters occur, and ensures that the actual moments of sexual congress are infused with moody effulgence, almost like works of great art on display in high art museums or galleries. Weir’s lighting magic is remarkable and the space at The Vaults responds well to his impressive touch.

Haydn Whiteside shines as consistently as Weir’s lighting. He plays a number of roles but is especially affecting as the rent boy met in the first and last scenes and as a mouthy, cocky University student whose lust outweighs every other aspect of his life. Whiteside unerringly finds the honesty in each scene and he is funny (very), tragic, sweet and vilely self-interested throughout. He differentiates his characters exceptionally well and his performances are the centrepieces for the play’s arguments.

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As the famous movie star who likes anal sex in broom cupboards and an Army boy confused about his sexuality, James Harper is equally good. He is a good foil for Whiteside and brings a real finesse to the edgier and less appealing characteristics of his roles. Harshness and understanding abide side by side in his portrayals. The scene where the movie star faces his demons is particularly good.

Rounding out the trio is Richard De Lisle, also excellent. A deceitful spouse, a lonely rich widow, a surprised playwright – De Lisle brings maturity and depth to each role he plays. His matter-of-fact attitude to sex, a constant throughout his scenes, is revealed, finally, to be glib misdirection.

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Barford manages the production with consummate ease. There are no awkward moments, no snags in pacing, no tiresome scene changes to break up the rhythm of the piece. It is beautiful direction, allowing the actors to mark their mark and the author’s intent to be lustrously achieved.

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At 70 minutes, F*cking Men represents a dense but rewarding time in the theatre and the main West End stages have little to match its quality and charm. Nothing presently at the National Theatre comes close to the effectiveness of this production, yet the National Theatre is a place where this play should run – it has much to say to everyone.

It may be enjoyed by gay and bisexual men and feature gay and bisexual characters, but, despite its name, F*cking Men is for anyone anywhere, male and female, who loves, has sex or loves to have sex.

A real achievement, not to be missed.

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.