Playing Cards 1 : Spades, Roundhouse, London


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The Independent Culture

Who but Robert Lepage would set a piece that is partly about the Iraq War in a Las Vegas hotel and its desert environs?

And who but this Quebecquois prodigy would choose to present it through the interwoven stories of (among others) – a nerdy string theorist and his pregnant partner who have come to be married by an Elvis impersonator; a recovering gambling addict from England who has, at reckless personal risk, travelled to the casino capital of the world for a TV sales convention; and a couple of soldiers – one from Spain, one from Denmark – being trained in a fake Iraqi village for combat in another desert.

The last of these, in particular, yammers with potential. But though there's a scene where a search party's raid on a Baghdad house turns out to be a practice session in Nevada, nowhere else does Lepage draw sufficiently suggestive parallels between the phony theme-park appropriations of Las Vegas and the fabricated speciousness of the reasons for going to war.

You look to this theatre-maker at his superb best (as in, say, The Far Side of the Moon and Lipsynch) to make thought-provoking synaptic connections between his disparate strands. Here, though, the links feel strained and forced. Oppressed by a sinister, pervy closet case of a sergeant and equipped with a rather convenient identity complex about medieval Crusaders, the gay Danish soldier is eventually driven to the most desperate form of role-play and gets to mouth, in a terribly rigged-sounding way, the belief that a war on terror can never end.

Running at an unbroken, bladder-testing two and half hours, the piece is the first of a projected tetralogy, each of which will explore the subtext of a playing card suit. The martial symbolism stems from the fact that “spades” are also known as “swords”, while the Knave of Spades is Satan who appears here as a louche, stetson-wearing cowboy capable of leading folk astray into different dimensions and turning “string theory” into a bondage game. 

But while the in-the-round staging is logistically impressive as it morphs between settings and while you can hardly believe at the end that the whole thing has been performed by a multi-lingual cast of just six, I am not convinced that Lepage has sensuously woven the idea of circularity into the fabric of the story. Watching this seriously under-developed ponderous/puckish soap opera is like staying in a monumental but only half-built hotel.

To March 2; 0844 482 8008