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
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Arts and Entertainment
Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters performs at Suncorp Stadium on February 24, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans had initially distanced himself from the possibility of taking the job

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
British author Matt Haig

books
Arts and Entertainment
Homeland star Damian Lewis is to play a British Secret Service agent in Susanna White's film adaptation of John le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor

Film
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.

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue