Paradox of destruction

Robert Lepage's epic play `The Seven Streams of the River Ota' holds more magic than meaning. By Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture
Lack of ambition is not - prima facie, at least - a charge you could easily level against The Seven Streams of the River Ota, now playing at the Lyttelton. Directed by the Quebecois wunderkind Robert Lepage, and "conceived" by a team that includes himself and his nine performers, this seven-and-a-half hour epic spans three continents and 52 years in its attempt to tease the paradoxes of destruction and regeneration on a planet shadowed by the Holocaust, the atom bomb and Aids. A single-issue piece it is not.

Paradox is very much the name of the game. The work begins and ends in Hiroshima, a city which Lepage, on his first visit, was surprised to discover is now a place of sensuous vitality rather than of emblematic devastation. For example, the two bridges that the Japanese built across the river Ota after the bombing are shaped like a penis and vagina - the reproductive organs necessary for renewal. Hiroshima, for Lepage, therefore, becomes the key reincarnation of an idea that governs the structure and content of Seven Streams; that seeming opposites - male / female, yin / yang, life / death, tragedy / comedy - are reflections of the same underlying reality.

You quickly feel that, if this is the case, the same must be true of ultimate profundity and total vacuousness. The "thinking" behind this show is productive of some brilliantly suggestive and unforgettable imagery, drawing on Lepage's unparalleled technical wizardry. But there's a good deal more magic in it than meaning and, to weave the kind of patterns he wishes to create, a plot has had to be concocted that makes your average Dickens novel look like a coincidence-free zone.

When the first three sections of this seven-part piece were unveiled at the Edinburgh Festival in 1994, it began with a prologue formed by bunraku puppets, which connected the invention of pyrotechnical means of destruction with perverted erotic desire. Feudal court scientists, in this fable, accidentally hit on gunpowder while attempting to cook up an aphrodisiac for the aged, impotent emperor who has abducted a lovely but unwilling young girl. In the substantially re-ordered and re-worked full version now on view, this Eros and thanatos-linking puppet parable has been shifted to the start of part six.

Another major alteration affects the role of Jana Capek (Ghislaine Vincent), the Jewish-Czech Holocaust survivor and photographer who has elected to live in Hiroshima and whose life - presented in flashback - was originally intended to be the work's connecting thread, her biography encapsulating the extremities of 20th-century history. She seemed, however, more a convenient device than a continuous individual and the droll disappearing-act magical stunts by which she escaped both the horrors of a concentration camp and drug addiction in Sixties New York felt like the offensive intrusion of Lepage's tricksiness into areas where you have no right to conjure the tragic away. The present show largely gets round this objection by removing Jana's narrative centrality. It now begins and ends with the Madame Butterfly- like story of a Texan GI, Luke O'Connor (Patrick Goyette), who is sent to Hiroshima in 1945 to photograph the destruction and who leaves having impregnated a young Japanese widow, Nozomi (Anne-Marie Cadieux). In Sixties New York, though neither knows of the other, the resulting Japanese-American son just happens to end up in the same crowded Greenwich Village lodgings as the all-American son.

By this time Luke is an old man, terminally ill with radiation-linked leukaemia. In the next episode, set in Amsterdam in 1985, it's the American son who is dying of Aids, and in a scene of quiet, terrible power, we see him taking the option of a family party assisted suicide. Since everything seems to reflect everything else in Seven Streams, there must be some intended significance in this juxtaposition of dying from atomic fallout and dying from Aids. But it seems about as cogent as comparing the Black Death and the sacking of Troy as causes of extinction.

The piece works best on an imagistic level, where the fusion of opposites, cultures and genders can be expressed via the haunting use of silhouettes behind Japanese screens, where the identity of naked lovers can dreamily shift, blur and dissolve, or, in the beautiful scene where a white-and-gold kimono rotates, its Madame Butterfly-wearer different on each turn. Or there's the dazzling changing metaphor of mirrors and the idea of reflection, as when the puppet girl holds up a mirror to the face of the ugly emperor to deter him from rape, and the moment when Jana stares into a looking glass and sees herself as the girl in the concentration camp. The crowning instance occurs in the Peace Museum in Hiroshima with the image of the river Ota after the explosion so full of bodies it could no longer reflect the daylight. It's no coincidence that this last, the finest bit of text in the piece, is taken from the Five Modern Noh Plays of Yukio Mishima.

Presenting (at its best) a dream world that cannot be contradicted rather than an argument that can, Seven Streams is a remarkable achievement. What Lepage is able to bring about by mixing media (live people painting over motion pictures, or surreally sharing the stage with puppets), and the visual changes he rings on some simple Japanese sliding doors, provide continual arresting refreshment for the retina. But there are longueurs and inconsequentialities: in particular, a protracted, sub-Richard Nelson culture clash comedy about French-Canadians in Japanese, which feels insufficiently relevant and there principally to up the character- and coincidence-count for later sections. And whereas writers like Geoffrey Hill and George Steiner have agonised about the morality of making art out of 20th-century atrocity, you sometimes feel, watching this flowing, blithely frictionless piece, that Lepage has an almost alarming shortage of misgivings on that score.

n To 4 Oct at the Lyttelton RNT, London SE1. Booking: 0171 928 2252