Monday 6 May 2013

Unsent Postcards: Spades – Roundhouse

[unaccountably, I thought I'd leave a cooling-off period before posting this]

Apparently the famous Canadian auteur Robert Lepage used to be good. I have to take this on trust as he’s one of those parties I turned up late for. I saw his enormously long, and far-from-finished Lipsynch in 2008 at the Barbican and thought it was flashy, cold, horribly over-long, vain and only sporadically interesting. But it had a certain chuztpah to it. I liked that Lepage was happy just to sling on his half-finished devised piece and make us pay money to watch his glorified scratch night.

I’ve got no idea if he thinks “Spades” is finished or not. (The title alludes to the unhappy prospect that he’s planning on doing a quartet of these pieces, each tenuously based on the apparent properties of a different suit in a pack of playing cards.) It’s two and a half hours long and very little really happens.

The big deal about Lepage was apparently his way with a mise-en-scene. In his prime he could apparently knock-up a half-decent stage picture. No more. Spades at the Roundhouse is playing in-the-round, which of course means that there’s no way to create a single unified spectacle for the whole audience, who are all looking at it from different angles. So, things that in-the-round theatre is good for are: things in which either the drama is compelling, or else: things where the quality of the image is not dependent on the angle from which it’s viewed. Lepage opts to side-step either option and presents only one spectacle (a “sandstorm” at the end, which consists of a smoke machine, some extractor fans, someone spinning round in the middle to make it swirly, and a lot of red light) and next to no drama at all, compelling or otherwise.

There are stabs at drama. There are a range of characters, but they are undone by the fact that they speak some of the worst dialogue you will hear spoken on the London stage this year, and the fact that they are all wankers. I say that. Actually, all the male characters are wankers. None of the female characters get enough stage-time to really develop beyond “very irritating” (and "wearing bikinis" mostly). But there we go, that’s the hand we’ve been dealt.

There are themes too. The main themes of Spades are The War In Iraq and Gambling in Nevada, near a military base, where some soldiers are, who are going to go to Iraq. I think there’s also some sort of shamanistic elemental mythical cowboy bullshit stirred into the mix, which only serves to make the whole thing feel like someone’s tried to make an Iraq play out of The Cult’s Love album, which, as a friend pointed out, would actually be better if only it was what they had been trying to do. Instead, we have to deal with the fact that this mess seems to think it’s being profound.

There’s also the upsetting matter of Lepage’s much-vaunted way with stage craft. Certainly there’s some impressive machinery on show. The circular stage at the centre of the Roundhouse’s cavernous interior has a middle section that can rise and fall, revealing hidden interiors or delineating sunken rooms. There are also a load of fold-up trapdoors, from which characters can emerge, or stand waist-high in, creating the impression of hotel bars, casino tables and so on. The problem is, while these “scene changes” are neat enough in themselves, the scenes that they actually create are no more impressive that your average student production of Dealer’s Choice. They’re fine, they’re functional, but they’re hardly visually exciting. This would of course be forgiveable if anything that took place within these uninspiring environs was of any interest whatsoever. Instead, wanker talks to wanker until we’d pay actual money for them to stop.

On the night I saw it – maybe a week or two after press night – by the end the sparse audience was openly, almost aggressively laughing at the worse lines. There were plenty of walk-outs too. It was wretched; a state of open contempt between audience and stage. “Oblige us to sit here for two and a half hours by all means” the audience, slumped in its seats seemed to hiss, “But don’t think we’re not going to fight back.”

This was theatre at its absolute worst. A passive-aggressive audience and, I would imagine, deeply unhappy performers, all stuck in an interminable nightmare of a “play” made by someone with a disgustingly inflated sense of their own importance.

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