Theatre: So long, Frank Lloyd Wright ...

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The Independent Culture
The Geometry of Miracles

Tramway@SECC, Glasgow

`Ideas are as close to God as we are likely to come on this earth," drawls the architect, deadpan. If this is the case, then Quebecois director Robert Lepage is capering right up against the divine; for ideas burst unstoppably from his buzzing theatrical brain.

Geometry of Miracles tells of the coming together of Frank Lloyd Wright and Georgi Gurdjieff, the Armenian esoteric philosopher. Settle back and watch the staging. A vast screen spills with stars; there's the sound of cicadas; the audience can almost scent the Arizona desert. A brilliant burst of tap-dancing on a table conjures up a secretary, busily battering the keys of an old Olivetti; that same table, possessed of an eerie life of its own, becomes piano, car, bed. A slowly revolving barber's chair is seamlessly echoed by an acrobat whirling suspended on a rope, creating in the air the circles and spirals of Lloyd Wright's holistic vision.

If, however, contact with God is conferred by ideas with depth and staying- power, then Lepage may not quite be in sight of sainthood yet. Geometry of Miracles has all the elation and all the frustration typical of Lepage's work. Pieces are devised and collaborative; the work evolves over time. This is noble and fine, but what falls by the wayside is substance, a solid core, a clear guiding path through all the wonderwork.

Thus, the nature and extent of this meeting of remarkable men never becomes clear. The figure of Lloyd Wright remains more absence than presence. An occasional aphorism, a dry aside about inspiration from the natural world, a special reverence for triangles: these are tantalisingly oblique snapshots of his thoughts, his life. Those seeking insight into the most influential architect of the 20th century should buy a book (or go to an exhibition: this British premiere in Glasgow is part of that city's Year of Architecture and Design). Gurdjieff comes to life with rather more force, with the superb Rodrigue Proteau doubling up as a naked, mischief-making Beelzebub seeking Lloyd Wright's soul.

It was the architect's third wife, Olgivanna, who came under Gurdjieff's influence, and the production has fun with some semi-baked stuff about numbers and choreography based on his sacred dances. These dances can evolve into ravishing sequences: a slow-motion crash, for instance, created by slowly tumbling bodies. (Lepage just loves slowly tumbling bodies.) However, the force of Gurdjieff's philosophy - a force that ensnared such writers as Katherine Mansfield - remains entirely unexplained. Instead, we have snippets: a cameo role for Stalin's daughter; a bit of subplot with a gay apprenctice who goes on to work with Le Corbusier - dropped rather arbitrarily into that astonishing, knock-you-sideways staging. In the final scene, the ashes of Mr and Mrs Lloyd Wright, ready to be intermingled, repose on a car seat while the cast foregather in a disco. Through a beautifully observed array of bumbling and strutting, the dance takes shape as a disco version of Gurdjieff's prescribed movements.

What is Lepage saying? That the sacred lies deep within the profane? That ancient and modern elide? Or just that he fancies a big, funny, feelgood finale? Is the lack of real substance beneath the stunning style an inevitable product of this way of working, all part of the plan? "You've got to leave some small imperfection to appease the jealousy of the gods," drawls the architect.

`Geometry of Miracles' will be at RNT Lyttelton, SE1 (0171 452 3000) 14-24 Apr.

Catherine Lockerbie is literary editor of the Scotsman.