Arts: Theatre as architecture

In Geometry of Miracles, Robert Lepage explores a famous partnership. But should we read this as a subtle hatchet job on Frank Lloyd Wright? By Paul Taylor
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It was no huge surprise to learn that Robert Lepage, the French- Canadian theatre wizard, had turned his attention to the great Wisconsin- born American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

Both men are, after all, strongly attracted to the Japanese. The earth- hugging horizontality of Wright's domestic buildings, their non-occidental concept of space which softens the barrier between inner and outer with folding screens, is creatively indebted to Japan. And it was a low-slung Japanese house that was the anchoring image in Lepage's Seven Screens of the River Ota - his vast, Hiroshima-centred trek through the past half- century - where the stretched, cinematic shape of the building and the multi-purpose screens were tailor-made for the kind of shadow play and drama through silhouette in which this director delights.

What does come as a shock, though, as you watch Geometry of Miracles at its British premiere in Glasgow, is the extent to which the show is less a homage to Wright than a stealthy hatchet job. This is one of the more intriguing aspects of the evening, alongside the piquant irony that the event takes place in an auditorium in the SECC at Finnieston, a vast, soulless complex that Wright would have refused to recognise as a building. Gertrude Stein once said of the book that it wasn't literature; it was scarcely typing. The SECC isn't architecture; it is scarcely brick-laying.

Geometry of Miracles is in part a dramatisation of the creative rapport (and domestic tensions) between Wright and Georgi Gurdjieff, the Russian mystic, composer and mathematician whom the architect met through his cranky third wife, Olgivanna. At the start of the show, Wright in late middle age (Tony Guilfoyle) is visited by Gurdjieff in the shape of a naked, growling Beelzebub (Rodrigue Proteau) who sinuously clambers over the architect's drawing-board and endeavours to lure him into a Faustian pact. The diabolical riddle of how you make a three-dimensional object from a single continuous line, Wright solves easily by drawing a beautiful inverted helix - the shape of the Guggenheim Museum, that late masterpiece: a defiantly perverse, art-hating art gallery. Allowed by Beelzebub to revisit his past, Wright conducts us on a journey that becomes a catalogue raisonnee of the rather unlovable contradictions in this man and his fanatical spouse. Wedded to the ideal that architects should be individuals first and architects second, and that architecture should take its cue from nature, Wright is shown to be the overlord of a community of trainees that is practically a totalitarian state in the jealous, oppressive demands it makes on its inmates.

True to its title, the show is a marvel of geometry, making ingenious use of a tilted screen and patterned stage and proceeding in sections that take their names (Circles, Triangles, etc) from abstract form. It is both witty - Johnson, the Thirties furniture polish magnate and Wright client, tap-dances his naive comm- unications like Jimmy Cagney in Footlight Parade- and often sensuously beautiful, as in the lovely hypnotic angularity of the ensemble callisthenic dances, masterminded by Gurdjieff, which at one point veer disturbingly into a trance-like depiction of a fatal car crash. But the irony that the show itself suffers from the very flaws (overweening hubristic rigidity, etc) that it identifies in Wright seems to have escaped it, and the script is toe-curlingly embarrassing. At one point, we are treated to a brisk tableau history of 20th-century Russia, where glancing play is made of the fact that phrases such as "red square" and "yellow triangle" cannot, to contemporary ears, signify pure apolitical entities. The sequence only succeeds in exemplifying the dreadful weakness in Lepage's output - that, however concerned with the non-aesthetic it tries to be, the work has the frictionless feel of a set of puerile conceits engendered in some international transit lounge of the soul. The sufferings of this dreadful century become unpleasantly weightless in this puckish world. When, at one stage, the well-drilled cast start counting backwards in unison, you wonder whether they are trying to locate Lepage's emotional age.

This director is rightly honoured for the way he develops and refines his theatre pieces over time. Geometry of Miracles will, I hope, benefit from this treatment. Because, at the moment, the central image of Wright's drawing-board (which metamorphoses ingeniously into an adulterous bed, a grand piano and so on) principally reminds you that a drawing-board is the place to which artists return when they haven't got it right first time.

Lomond Auditorium, SECC, Glasgow (0141-287 7777)

Comments