THEATRE / Shining in the shadow of the two suns: Neal Ascherson was seized by Robert Lepage's new show

I saw the Edinburgh production of 'The Seven Streams of the River Ota' this summer, and I nearly left after the first act. The production seemed at once baffling and trivial. Luckily, a friend I met during the interval warned me that Robert Lepage knew what he was doing, and that if I stayed I would see the point. Going mistrustfully back into the auditorium, I found myself facing one of the most seizing theatrical moments in my life, and the Lepage method slowly became clear. This is a piece I wrote afterwards as a programme note for later productions.

WHEN people in Hiroshima looked into that flash, 'brighter than a thousand suns', their eyes melted and ran down their faces.

In the half-century that followed, no artist or writer has been able to look directly into that instant of appalling light. Instead, it has been refracted through innumerable lenses. Some delivered that illumination of fear - the anticipation of universal death - which coloured everything during the decades of nuclear confrontation. Other lenses broke up the light into trivial glitters to give illusions of profundity to some junk novel or television play. At the same time, as people began more slowly to grasp the details of the Jewish Holocaust in the years immediately before Hiroshima, a second, black sun rose into which it proved impossible to look directly without being blinded. Claude Lanzmann, in his film Shoah, revealed as much as is possible by using the smoked glass of personal recollections. But nobody who has tried to confront what took place directly has survived as an artist.

Robert Lepage, in The Seven Streams of the River Ota, is setting out to construct a masque of the later 20th century. More precisely, he is letting this extraordinary production construct itself like a sort of coral reef, slowly changing and growing larger with each performance. Over the whole era since the 1940s hang the white sun and the black sun, Hiroshima and Holocaust, and Lepage has found that the only way to collect and transmit their glare is by filling his stage with lenses. This is made literally true, by a triumphant use of mirrors. But it is figuratively true as well. The heartbreaking personal narrative, the emphasis on the disguises of photography, Lepage's selection - at first violently shocking - of high farce or bed-hopping sitcom as dramatic modes: these are all lenses through which the unbearable light source is broken up into spectrum colours and spread out for an audience to appreciate.

In this way, Lepage has made it possible to see - or to begin to see and to explore - how human culture has developed in the light of the two suns. His drama is about survivors. But it is also about the way in which the loneliness of the survivors, the impossibility of telling others what it was like to be where they have been, has permeated all sensual experience with uncertainty and melancholy - as if generations born decades after the atom bomb and the gas chambers still carried in their genes an amazed sense of survival. The concentration camp at Theresienstadt, in which families waiting to be transported to Auschwitz were encouraged by the Nazis to develop a rich, 'normal' cultural life of concerts and entertainments, prefigured this unease and this feeling of unreality. The great flash in the Hiroshima sky, by which a city was illuminated and then instantly eradicated, is also the flashbulb of the photo-booth in which people freeze their own desires and use an image to obliterate their old identities. The encounters between cultures once mutually unknown have entirely metamorphosed the world since 1945, but these encounters seem to look back over their shoulder at the time when to be 'other' - Jewish or Japanese - was to be condemned to death.

Lepage, finally, is working at the idea that sexuality itself, the fact of gender and the patterns of behaviour around it, were pitched into mutation by the rays from the two suns. This is not some easy revisiting of Eros and Thanatos, but the thought that the human species is leaving behind its old binary division altogether, exploring an entirely new range of responses to love and procreation. Where this exploration will go is as unpredictable as where Lepage's growing, organic work of art will eventually take him - the unknown point at which the Seven Streams of the River Ota converge.

'The Seven Streams of the River Ota': Riverside Studios, London W6 (081-741 2255), Fri to 5 Nov. Sponsor: Beck's beer.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried