Thomas Ovans considers the hand he was dealt by Robert Lepage in his new production at The Roundhouse.

Spades is the first of Robert Lepage’s new four-part cycle of plays with the overall title Playing Cards.  It is set in Las Vegas at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and presents a group of people in various states of desperation.  A threatened and abused soldier from a training camp in the Nevada desert comes to the city on a weekend’s R&R; a recovering gambling addict with money problems has to face the city’s temptations in order to attend a business conference; a couple go ahead with their plans to get married even though their relationship has begun to run into difficulties; a hotel maid is seriously worried about her health but her illegal immigrant status makes her frightened to go to hospital.  The plights of these characters are well conveyed by a cast of five actors who share about a dozen roles between them and skilfully differentiate between the parts they have to play.

The play’s unusual staging also serves to expose the characters’ helplessness and vulnerability.  The performance takes place in the round: we are often looking down on the actors on a bare circular stage where entrances and exits are made through a large number of trapdoors.  There is nowhere to hide – ordinary doors connecting corridors to hotel rooms pop up briefly for certain arrivals and departures and then disappear again.  Some scenes are played in a central rectangular pit so that actors are visible only from the waist up – thus giving a sense of their characters’ permanent immersion in difficulties.

The atmosphere of the piece is fairly relentlessly bleak (the scenes with the bullying officer in the military camp being particularly disturbing).  Only an Elvis impersonator and a couple of Celine Dion jokes briefly inject a lighter note.  Yet I felt drawn into varying degrees of identification and sympathy with the play’s main protagonists and their misfortunes, even when self-inflicted.  There are, however, two other important characters who seemed to me not quite to belong within the conventions of the production’s rather film noir style of heightened realism.  One is a “trickster” of the kind found in Native American folk tales (although oddly this one is dressed as a cowboy) and the other is shaman-like and inhabits (or haunts?) the desert beyond the city.  The interactions between these two figures and the more “ordinary” characters gives rise to some dramatically interesting scenes which include Lepage’s characteristically inventive stage effects.  But, for me, their significance remained unclear.  This was especially so as regards the unexpected ending – where “unexpected” is not meant to imply ”pleasingly surprising” but something rather more like “oh is that it then?”!  The rather flat conclusion was all the more disappointing to me because the rest of the piece – at two and a half hours without an interval – had, up to that point, kept my interest and curiosity.

Spades, like all Lepage’s work, is clearly well-crafted and seriously thought out.  It is also technically quite complicated involving many smooth and rapid re-shapings of the set. (I understand, however, that technical difficulties with the stage effects have led to at least one performance having to be cancelled.)  In spite of my earlier reservations about some of its aspects, I am glad to have seen this play and found much of it very absorbing.  Since it is the first of a four-part project perhaps I should not have expected it to yield up neat resolutions too easily or too quickly.

Thomas Ovans © 2013.