Header Ads

Breaking News

The Seven Streams of the River Ota review – magic in motion | Stage

This was the pivotal show. It felt significant at the time, as if we were swinging on a hinge. Inside, a full auditorium and an utterly confident production. Outside, growing uncertainty. The day after Boris Johnson told the British public that many families are “going to lose loved ones before their time”, audiences were only just beginning to lose their innocence. Despite virtuoso displays of hand washing in the ladies (surely the taps should have been triggered to play Happy Birthday?), there was inconsistency with elbows, shoulders and fingers on the no doubt germ-friendly swinging doors. Yet the foyer and the usually buzzing cafes were muted; a director who had just opened a play in the West End said he was waiting to be told he had to close. People were beginning to suspect what now looks obvious: this was the last big production before theatrical lockdown in London.

Extraordinary and fitting that it should be a reprisal of The Seven Streams of the River Ota, conjured by the French-Canadian theatrical wizard Robert Lepage and his company Ex Machina. First seen in Quebec in 1996, it is a mighty show: historically far-reaching, theatrically inventive – and peculiarly resonant now. During panic and pandemic, it was salutary to watch, over seven hours, the calm unfolding of catastrophe, and inspiriting to see gradual reconciliation and resolution.

Lepage begins in Hiroshima, with the pain inflicted by the west on the east when the Americans dropped the atomic bomb; he ends there, 54 years later, with a western visitor’s admiration of Japan. In 1945, an American photographer visits the house of a Japanese woman: he has been commissioned to take pictures of physical damage and sets about snapping buildings. “I thought,” the woman says, “you would take pictures of me.” Her face has been torn apart by the explosion, and she has never been allowed to look into a mirror. In the same house in 1999, a young European dancer listens, rapt, to the woman’s daughter as she describes the bombing she saw as a child. It blinded her.

In both scenes a golden kimono is stretched out glittering on poles at the back of the stage, like the trophy of a lepidopterist. Madam Butterfly flickers through the action, one of the links – along with complicated family ties and friendships – that binds together this exploration of the traumas and frivolities of the 20th century. Characters’ lives are destroyed by the Holocaust and by Aids; there is a shocking suicide and a gentle assisted dying; there are bunk-ups and romance; there is French farce.

Lepage is forever magicking one thing into another, one place into the next. The wood and transparent screens of the Hiroshima house glide into the rooms of a New York apartment block, the picture and windows of the Amsterdam red-light district, and the many-doored walls of a Feydeau farce. The stage becomes a body in perpetual motion; the show is constantly retranslating itself: it is spoken (with surtitles) in French and English, with exchanges in German and Japanese; it is spliced with music from Puccini, Poulenc and the Supremes and from Japanese percussionists, who sit at the side of the stage.

The Seven Streams of the River Ota.

Perpetual motion… The Seven Streams of the River Ota. Photograph: Elias Djemil-Matassov

I expected to admire; I did not expect to laugh. Yet the range is impressive: a nifty satire on TV interviewing with a series of reaction shots that run the gamut of insincerity from furrowed concern to faux amazement; a sharp exchange between a suspicious wife and a young actress that nails backstage snarking. New York provides a gargoyle landlady and knockabout comedy, when one character, climbing out of a bathroom window on to a fire escape to watch a baseball game on a tenant’s telly, clambers back in to discover another chap sitting on the lav. The simplicity of the joke disguises the complexity of the stage set-up: the several interiors, the outside, the height, the depth, the swinging from one place to another – ludicrous and realistic in one go.

In a closing scene the European dancer stands behind the blind translator as she remembers “the world in flames”. As she stretches her arms out towards the river on whose banks she was when the bomb fell, he does the same. He mirrors every gesture she makes. You could argue that this is the west making art from the tragedy of the east. It is also a homage and a fusion. Though dealing with disasters, Lepage’s series of tableaux affirm resilience and people’s interdependence. What closer proof of intermingling than the absorption of one person’s gesture by another.

One gesture you never see on stage, outside a Restoration comedy, is someone touching their face. I can’t be the only person who feels she has spiders crawling all over her features since she heard the warnings about touching: who knew? Perhaps we don’t notice gestures that don’t seem to be declaring something. If characters touched their noses 16 times an hour, would the stage look instantly more realistic?

Source link

No comments