Spades, Roundhouse | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
Canada's most imaginative director turns his 360 degree gaze on the Iraq War
You don’t so much watch a Robert Lepage show as surrender to it, and his latest project sees Canada’s most innovative theatre-maker in full assault. It’s hard to think of another director whose response to the Iraq War would involve an Elvis impersonator, menopause as a major plot point and a visual cadenza for twelve perspex chairs, but that’s the love/hate thrill of Lepage. Spades is the first in a planned tetralogy of plays each themed around one of the suits of cards. Conceived in partnership with round arts venues across the world, the cycle proposes a 360 degree theatrical experience that leaves the fourth wall crumbling somewhere in the distance.
We’ve all seen theatre-in-the-round before, but Lepage is at pains to turn what is conventionally a two-dimensional circle into a three-dimensional sphere of theatre. The cast cannot exit or enter the stage-space during the performance, so horizontal planes of on and offstage become vertical axes, with props and sets rising up or descending as needed.
A visual dance that reconceives the space in endlessly inventive permutations
Theoretically and technically complex, visually it’s organic and exhilarating – a dance that reconceives the space in endlessly inventive permutations. The 12 chairs descend in absolute synchronism on retracting wires, arranged precisely around the revolving edge of the stage. It’s a gesture that must have taken hours of technical trial and error, and all for the most fleeting scene of exposition. Swimming pools, airports, bars, hotel rooms and of course casinos (we are in Las Vegas after all) all take shape before us, each melting and bleeding into the next.
And that’s the danger of Spades – a piece of visual circus-theatrics that constructs its scene changes with such mastery as to risk obscuring the drama they punctuate. Nominally this is a work about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, telling a tale about one dusty desert city by visiting Western civilisation’s silicon-enhanced, alcohol-infused doppelganger: Las Vegas. Outside the city, soldiers fight a phoney war in a faux-Iraqi village defended by Hollywood extras. Inside the city’s hotels, ordinary people play their own domestic games of risk and chance, gambling against odds no more arbitrary than the US army.
It’s all excellently done by a cast of just six multilingual actors, each taking multiple roles, but the question of whether it’s worth doing is more fraught. Dialogue is functional – best in the clumsy banality of naturalism, worst in moments of political or social table-thumping – but its issues are ill-digested into the narrative. Individual stories scratch deep for a moment, but just as we begin to feel the sting Lepage’s panoptic vision pans elsewhere.
Typical of the director’s cumulative approach the show has apparently evolved since its Canadian debut. It’s mercifully shorter now (playing at around two-and-a-half hours without interval), but still feels too long, and now ends on more of a David Lynch-esque shrug of symbolist make-of-that-what-you-will than a pyrotechnic bang.
Lepage’s time with Cirque du Soleil has honed his eye for spectacle and sharpened his visual imagination, but it may also have stunted his emotional investment in storytelling. There’s an awful lot of grandiose window-dressing here in a tale whose best bits are as simple as they are brutal.
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