Roundhouse, London

Theatre review: Playing Cards 1: Spades - The Devil came down to Nevada

Strange drama in a Las Vegas casino misses the jackpot, but its black humour lingers in the mind


Acompulsive gambler in a business suit, wanting to end it all, checks out of a Las Vegas casino-hotel and wanders into the desert, casting off his clothes as he staggers on under the burning sun. The circular stage spins under his feet, as if the Earth were a giant roulette wheel.

The set is, surely, meant to be the star of Playing Cards 1: Spades, Robert Lepage's latest production and the first instalment of a planned tetralogy. The Québécois director-deviser's company, Ex Machina, is famous for stunning stage mechanics, and Spades is a pioneering commission for an international network of in-the-round venues.

As Lepage's multiplying (and polyglot) characters cross paths in the casino-hotel – drawn into Sin City's underworld of sleazy sex and avarice – the stage floor doesn't only revolve. It's also a kind of flat-pack maze. Concealed doors flip up and hatches fold away to reveal steaming hot-tubs or sunken late-night bars, where bottles of spirits glow in the dark. All entrances and exits are through these traps.

A showgirl, moonlighting as a prostitute, slinks and winks, as well as appearing to have a sweet side. Ultimately, she is lured into the bedroom of a squaddie who, having been sexually abused at a nearby Iraq-war training camp, has gone Awol, and imagines he's been reincarnated as a medieval crusader against evil.

Meanwhile, an arid physicist has been lured into a gaming spree, though he knows the odds. A predatory card shark and conjuror in cowboy gear – possibly the Devil incarnate – is spiking drinks. Popping up everywhere, he seduces the scientist's naïve wife and dogs the footsteps of the suicidal executive.

However, the hard truth is that, compared with Lepage's past wonders, Spades disappoints, at times falling surprisingly flat. The phrase "busted flush" springs to mind, but hopefully this is an epic-in-progress that will benefit from adjustments.

The script needs further development, and the fiendishly complex, 360-degree staging was still rough around the edges at its London press night. Arms could be seen shooting up to catch the pop-up doors as they swung shut, and the revolve clumsily exposed what should have been cunning theatrical illusions.

Still, several of the actors are spellbinding, notably Nuria Garcia as the sinuous hooker, and Tony Guilfoyle who doubles as the tense exec and the soldier's vile, insinuating commander. In spite of flaws, Spades lingers in the mind for its menacing black humour and mythological dimension – good angels and demons battling for souls.

Director/deviser Tristan Sharps' often brilliant immersive theatre company Dreamthinkspeak has also bitten off more than it can chew. In the Beginning Was the End (Somerset House, London ****)was first inspired by the Book of Revelation and Leonardo da Vinci – both his hydraulic inventions and his worries about the potential misuse of science.

This promenade piece is site-responsive as well, leading you through King's College London's maze of subterranean tunnels and spiralling steps, through cubbyholes and high Neoclassical chambers. Many of the installations, en route, are droll and ominous, including a throbbing laboratory – caught somewhere between the 1970s and the surreal – where white-coated eggheads whisper in foreign languages, waving electrodes amid banks of flickering dials.

But the piece seems to lose its way – or shallow out – as we step into the HQ of a fictional, up-to-the-minute, white-walled corporation that markets gadgets. Their mini-robots are supposed to make us cups of tea or fling foam discs at kitchen mice, only their motors are a tad out of control. That, in turn, leads to computer screens flashing up consumer complaints. Boardroom tables tilt to become death chutes as shares drop, and harassed office underlings run amok, stripping naked.

In the Beginning ... lacks a strong storyline, yet it's worth the wait for the moment of celestial transcendence when the free spirits, unclothed and now calm, process up a winding stairwell and lean out, high above you, like hesitant archangels. I look forward to further collaborative projects by Somerset House and King's Cultural Institute, the college's new creative initiative.

Coincidentally, the idea that technological advances might not always benefit humanity is crisply articulated by the titular protagonist in Brecht's A Life of Galileo (Swan, Stratford-Upon-Avon ***). This fine biodrama, of course, sees the revolutionary astronomer and physicist vehemently defending the quest for scientific knowledge, confuting the Catholic Inquisition's doctrine that everything revolves round the Earth.

Mark Ravenhill's new translation for the RSC, cutting some historic detailing, is less verbose than the original. Roxana Silbert slightly overeggs her production's hi jinx, but designer Tom Scutt's fusions of 17th-century and modern dress sharply emphasise the persistent topicality of rationalism versus religious fundamentalism, and of academic researchers pressured to fit their results to funding bodies' agendas. Ian McDiarmid's Galileo is a feisty dynamo: gung-ho, then pale and broken by interrogation, but ultimately a wily survivor.

'Spades' (0844 482 8008) to 2 Mar; 'A Life of Galileo' (0844-800 1110) to 20 Mar; 'In the Beginning Was the End' (020-7452 3000) to 30 Mar

Critic's Choice

At London's Young Vic (to 2 Mar), Feast whirls through Yoruba cultural history, from the slave trade to today’s diaspora, with a dazzling fusion of short plays, dance and wizard projections. For children, The Icebook is a magical fantasy played out in a miniature theatre with delicate paper cut-outs. Aimed at aged 10 and over, it’s in Stratford-upon-Avon’s Swan Theatre building (Mon to Sat).

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before