Playing Cards – Spades – Roundhouse – review by Carole Woddis

I’ve been watching Robert Lepage since Rose de Went Fenton and Lucy Neal, the visionary founders of London’s International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) brought him to London in 1987.

Beguiled, dazzled, sometimes infuriated but mostly bewitched, I and British audiences have been treated to a series of boundary-breaking productions from The Dragon’s Trilogy (1985) to The Seven Streams of Ota (1994) to Lipsynch (2011).

Always with Lepage, you are aware of being in the presence of a consummate theatrical magician.  His preoccupation with modern technology and the ambivalent sometimes hostile relationship between theatre and cinema have also taken him into explorations into shifting human identities (Tectonic Plates, 1988), space (The Far Side of the Moon, 2000), and Hans Christian Andersen (The Andersen Project, 2005) amongst others as subjects through which to explore the marriage of imagery, text, and trompe d’oeils.

It was Lepage, after all, who first reminded us of the power of puppetry when he used one as a small, poignantly diminutive cosmonaut in The Far Side of the Moon.  Then there was the exquisite confluence of the everyday event of watching washing in a tumble dryer in a downtown laundrette morphing into a human being tumbling as though in space, again with associations with moon landings.

In nearly all of Lepage’s work – and he never works alone; what you see is always the result of many hands drawn from his Quebec based Ex Machina company – it is his ability to  juxtapose the lives of ordinary individuals and interconnect them over geographical space and time that turns them into something extraordinary.

Now he is here in London with his latest, a project that will take him over 8-10 years to complete, a tetralogy based on the four suits of playing cards, co-ordinated with an  international group of round arts venues.

Anyone who has seen the Roundhouse recently will know just how much that particular venue has undergone a transformation.  I worked there over 25 years ago when it really was just a dusty slightly converted railway engine shed, when the offices were a bunch of nissen huts in the car park but when it was already acquiring kudos as the centre of the universe for legions of artists and audiences alike from the counter culture.

Today, it’s smart, expensive but the essential round circular auditorium is intact and Spades – a cross between a circus and 3-D casino – sits not entirely comfortably under its domed roof.

Set in Las Vegas – Lepage has directed a show there for Cirque du Soleil – and given Spades’ theme of gambling, I couldn’t help reflecting that both experiences must have `leaked’ somewhere into his thinking.

Spades is like a three-ringed circus, played around a theme of the way random chance intervenes in our lives allied to the American and coalition invasion of Iraq – (American army bases encircle Las Vegas apparently)  – and is full of typical Lepage leifmotifs: intertwining storylines; individual images of striking potency; and a fluency of process that despite its two and a half hours duration without interval mesmerises.

Hidden from view, underneath the circular stage, Lepage’s crew have built a subterranean series of trapdoors.  Thus characters emerge and as quickly disappear.  Now you see them, now you don’t.  Was that a trick or light or did you imagine that moment? As you watch, doors rise up then fall to earth; a swimming pool appears suggested by two chrome rails and a large gap in the stage.  A man goes to hell in a sea of red vapour that seems drawn by a magnet.

Chairs descend; a revolve slowly turns as a tv executive, on working holiday in Vegas and also a gambling addict, attends a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and makes his `confession’.  This last, delivered by British actor Tony Guilfoyle (a Lepage regular) is a master class in  timing and understatement.  Later Guilfoyle, who also appears as a sadistic American army major, is also responsible for one of the most powerful images of the night.  Naked, he circles the stage, at once a figure reduced to Shakespeare’s `bare, forked man’ and in part rebirthed in the Arizonian desert by a character who may or may not be a hippy, a shaman or a symbol of Fate.

Caught in a variety of situations, Spades’ delivers up, amongst others a suicidal Coalition Norwegian soldier, an illegal Mexican immigrant working as a housemaid in a Vegas hotel, an Elvis lookalike and a Quebecois couple on honeymoon in Vegas taken for an unearthly ride by a Devil in disguise.

Wondrous, politically questioning and ultimately slyly critical of western mores, Spades doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of its individual and presentational magic.  But even sub-vintage Lepage sets standards few can match here.

Devised by the company, amazingly only six strong for a narrative so complex, there is a special beauty in the style of acting they create – at once relaxed and in such a huge space, very, very, intimate.  Roll on Hearts!

Playing Cards is at the Roundhouse to March 2, 2013; see www.roundhouse.org.uk

Carole Woddis © 2013.