Desert Mirage: Robert Lepage takes a gamble with ‘Playing Cards’ at the Roundhouse

Thursday 7th February 2013 (first preview)

When we heard that there was going to be a new production by Robert Lepage coming to the Roundhouse, we rushed to book our tickets.  We hadn’t seen any of his work before, but with ‘Playing Cards 1: Spades’, the publicity promised something spectacular, intriguing and original.  Always on the lookout for something different, our expectations were high.  It’s been a while since we’ve been to the Roundhouse and it’s certainly enjoyed a facelift.  Unfortunately, comfortable seating is not part of the package, and we were less than pleased, given that the show would run for two and a half hours without an interval.

The first in a quartet of plays, one for each suit of cards, this show is based on the theme of war (though we would never have guessed), set in Las Vegas and featuring coalition troops from a nearby military base waiting to be deployed in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.  Las Vegas is used as a metaphor for the values of the West, and a nameless (and soulless) hotel serves as a meeting place for a disparate group of people whose relationships we explore.  The concept seems sound enough, but the problem with using Las Vegas as a metaphor is that it is a real place, and the real stories which emerge from it tend to be stranger and more interesting than any fiction.

There is no doubt that a great deal of technical ingenuity has gone into this production – the stage is essentially a sunken square into which the actors emerge from beneath the stage, and they are often seen only from the waist up, which creates an interesting intensity.  The usual problems associated with sightlines in the round are solved by having doors and other pieces of the set pop up only when needed, receding into the stage once they have served their purpose.  Screens are occasionally used to show the action too, but they seemed almost superfluous.  There are some striking visual moments, as we would have expected, for example, a character talks at a gamblers anonymous meeting sitting on a chair amongst a ring of empty chairs, rotating endlessly around the edge of the set.  A desert storm is ingeniously evoked at the end with light, dry ice and fans, and the action is on the whole is seamless, with sets literally appearing to melt into the darkness before our eyes.

We were amazed when only six actors emerged to take their bows – the doubling up was skilfully done, and the cast worked hard to bring a whole range of characters to life, in a variety of languages.  Tony Guilfoyle, whom we were surprised to learn we already knew as the unfortunate father Larry Duff in ‘Father Ted’, was one of the strongest, switching from the sadistic sergeant to stressed out TV executive (via a brief turn as Elvis) with ease.  Nuria Garcia similarly relishes her switches between maid and prostitute – we only realised she was playing both characters after a neat costume change in which she steps out of a hospital gown into bondage gear, and as ‘Dick’, the mysterious cowboy who is not all he seems, Roberto Mori is charmingly believable.

But for us, there was one key problem with this production.  The moments of theatricality and visual splendour are few and far between, and cannot compensate for the material itself, which is thin.  Cliche-ridden doesn’t even convey the sense that we’d seen every character and every exchange and dramatic moment somewhere before.   At one point we experienced a moment of brief annoyance when the surtitles broke down, but when they came back on and the first line was something along the lines of ‘I haven’t even got to know myself yet’, we started to wonder if the play would have been better if we couldn’t understand the words.  The closest we can come to describing it was like  flipping TV channels on a weekday afternoon. 

It is pretty depressing to see that the only female characters are prostitutes, dancing girls, downtrodden maids or passive wives and mistresses with low esteem, and while there is a bit more variety for the male actors, there is not much substance for them either, and there is nowhere for the narrative to go.   More importantly, there is nothing intrinsically interesting in seeing a lot of disparate characters interact unless their stories somehow become greater than the sum of their parts.  Despite all the cleverness of the production style, we felt there was no originality where it mattered, on a dramatic and emotional level.

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2 Responses to Desert Mirage: Robert Lepage takes a gamble with ‘Playing Cards’ at the Roundhouse

  1. John Branch says:

    A few things about your description suggested to me that a production of the Brecht-Weill opera Mahagonny would’ve been more rewarding. It’s not about war, but it is about the values of the West.

    One thing you didn’t make clear is who wrote this. A review from Toronto tells me that Lepage shares writing credit with the cast. Correct for what you saw? (I didn’t bother checking the show-notes PDF.)

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    • rageoffstage says:

      Yes, that’s right – credit goes to the cast, with only one new name mentioned – Carole Faisant. There was also a piece in the Guardian about his working methods. We did fudge this issue a little, but you are quite right to pick it up. Our feeling is that collaborative writing is much harder than it looks and the chances of getting high quality writing out of improvised scenes are slim. Perhaps this is not a priority for Lepage, in which case our question would be, why not do something more surreal and less text based? Have you seen any of his previous works?

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