Playing Cards 1: Spades
The Roundhouse, London
1st March 2013
Lepage’s solo written / directed / acted The Far Side of The Moon ten years ago would count among my ten best theatrical experiences. Ka, the Cirque du Soleil piece he created, is a show I’ve seen twice. It may be tricks of memory, but Ka seemed larger and more impressive right at the start of its run in 2004, than it did in 2012. On the other hand, he also directed, Totem, one of the Cirque du Soleil’s weaker pieces. Having seen his Cirque du Soleil spectaculars gives me an advantage. A couple of reviewers found Spades’ storyline confusing. I never worked out the storyline of Ka, and I don’t think Totem had one. So I didn’t enter The Roundhouse expecting a logical or linear piece.
So all the publicity mentioned the non-linearity. It was confused but the interwoven stories seemed separate enough but each part was linear. Magical realism? Maybe. Shakespeare has that too. The play is set in Las Vegas in 2003, not coincidentally where Lepage would have been preparing Cirque du Soleil’s Ka that same year. The preview notes say it’s set in Las Vegas and Bagdad, but it isn’t. The army bits are at a training camp in the Nevada Desert near Las Vegas where soldiers are trained to deal with insurgents.
The themes are broadly:
A couple from Quebec who get married in Las Vegas by an Elvis impersonator. The man, Jeff, is a string theory physicist, Marie-Eve is pregnant. They meet an enigmatic cowboy called Dick, who appears to be some trickster /devil figure. It takes place in a hotel. This segment is conducted in French.
The hotel staff, based round the exhausted Hispanic illegal immigrant housekeeper, her trainee and the bellboy. This segment is played in Spanish.
A British gambling addict, is there to meet a French mistress in the same hotel. He owes a load of money. He has to phone his wife. He’s aggressive and angry. He says fuck an awful lot. He gets to appear naked for a long time in the desert.
Two soldiers are there for training by a sadistic American officer in counter-insurgency. One is Spanish, one is Danish. Scenes where they are searching Iraqis are training exercises with actors ‘imported from Hollywood’. They go to the same hotel as everyone else. They meet a prostitute who is half Spanish /half Algerian (allowing heavy-handed crusader references). The Danish one has problems with his sexual identity, partly caused by the aggressive homosexual officer. In the first few seconds of the play he appears to get raped under a platform which rises from the stage.
There is also stuff about a hippy shaman, and some prancing around (lugubriously) in viking, crusader and saracen costumes.
A cast of six manage the lot: British, two Spanish, two Quebecois, one German, playing Danish (and he also runs a Spanish theatre company) They’re multilingual. They all have to cover multiple minor roles and are barely recognizable when they switch. It’s hard work to cover so many roles and wig and costume changes are well-done. Tony Guilfoyle covered the British gambler, the American captain and I assume Elvis. You couldn’t guess it was the same actor except by elimination. Similarly Nuria Garcia did the ailing room maid and the sexy prostitute, and you wouldn’t guess she was both. All credit to all of them.
The set is 360 degrees, and the stage is one metre high. Everything and everyone appears from below.The stage is remarkable, but not magical. There are many good ideas. A lot of the acting is “waist upwards” which is fascinating (the lower half of the actor is below stage level). At the end the seven sub-stage technicians / stage managers appear and get well-deserved applause, because the bits of set popping up and going down are the star of the show. The show is two and a half hours without any interval. This is LONG with any play. It seemed longer.
Problems. In the programme, much is said about working the cast to operate in the round. Anyway, they ‘cheated’ by using TV cameras and screens when actors had their backs to you. Perhaps too much effort was put into this 360 degree work at the expense of flow. There is no pace. The transitions are tediously slow. There are long lugubrious bits … slow motion roulette and cards, people walking right round the stage in circles, a crusader moving slowly with a sword, the shaman playing around with smoke. When you compare the pace of an RSC or NT production, the pacing is extremely poor. We were both bored a lot of the time. Working in the round seemed nothing more than a complex technical gimmick. I always assume working in the round brings in and involves the audience. There was zero interactivity with the audience, because they weren’t playing to the audience, a fact Lepage seemed proud of in the programme. In this production, the empty space circling the round stage was as much of a wall as any proscenium arch. The only advantage the round gave was displaying their ability to hide all the workings inside the one metre high drum. It confirms my view that a thrust stage works better technically and involves the audience just as well.
Three languages means screens with translations. Apparently there were bits in a fourth, Danish. The screen takes the eye off the action and is always a really bad idea. Looking at the programme list, it’s playing Madrid, two venues in Sweden, Denmark, three venues in France, plus Montreal. This is why we have multiple languages. The translations of the Spanish and French are wooden. I don’t know whether the dialogue sounds that wooden to a native French or Spanish speaker. What I do know is that the English dialogue is leaden. Nothing sparkled. There’s hardly a laugh all night. The line interactivity is weak. There are some mind-bogglingly “meaningful” bits. The best bit of the whole script was when the Elvis impersonator recited the classic spoken word Deck of Cards (Tex Tyler, 1948, US #2, later a US and UK hit for both Wink Martindale and Max Bygraves) which I already knew in full, and which he recited in full. The Spanish influence, judging by Forests recently, seems to be saying Deeply Meaningful Stuff About Life (my caps). It’s not a style that sits well in English. As we came out we did the “sum it up in two words.” Mine were “tedious, pretentious.” My companion’s were less positive and stated more rudely.
The Roundhouse wasn’t full. As with Forests (which was far far worse than this) a large Spanish section applauded most enthusiastically. Around us applause was luke-warm. My feeling from audience buzz, or rather lack of buzz, is that the Roundhouse will be checking they haven’t committed to stage the next three in the Pack of Cards quartet, which we’re told will take 8 to 10 years to complete. We definitely won’t be booking any of the next three. Lepage directed, but didn’t do much of the scriptwriting, which is a great shame given the great script of his Far Side Of The Moon. Maybe he should take a central role in scripting dialogue as well as writing.
There is an awful degree of hubris in billing yourself on the posters as “The World’s Greatest Director.” I can’t think of any other director who would allow that. On this evidence, I could name half a dozen RSC and NT directors who make the claim ludicrous, though they generally have a much better text and plot to work from. Based on Ka, Lepage is a great PRODUCER of theatrical extravaganzas. Based on Far Side of The Moon, he’s a fine actor and scriptwriter. In that play he was directing himself. Directing other actors? No chance.
I’m amazed that the Roundhouse’s own restaurant was packed while Marine Ices opposite was half full. Marine Ices, opened 1947, was one of the first Italian restaurants in London. I’ve known it since the 60s. I love it. The ice creams are, as Michael Winner often said, the best in the UK. The spaghetti carbonara is definitive. The restaurant and its normal first rate service made the rest of the evening acceptable!
One cigarette for a couple of seconds. Modest given the pall of cigarette smoke in Las Vegas itself.
First rate interview with Lepage. Very good all round.