Review: Robert Lepage Playing Cards 1: Spades @ Roundhouse

A rooftop Vegas swimming pool created with a pit and steam.

Canadian auteur Robert Lepage returns to the Roundhouse with panoramic snapshots of what he did on his holidays with Cirque du Soleil.

Spades is the first of a four-part exploration of in-the-round theatre, our modern liminal lives, and playing cards. Set in 2003 at the outbreak of the Iraq War, a host of multi-cultural wanderers find themselves entwined at a Las Vegas retreat. The suit of spades was originally swords, and in this production represents war, risk and chance.

Metaphors for the controversial war range from European soldiers training in the Nevada desert and frisking Hollywood actors in a fake Iraqi village, to a Mexican maid suffering from fainting fits. The references are sometimes oblique and the dialogue is more functional than profound, but it’s the execution that steals the show.

Lepage has never been comfortable in a box (theatre) and embraces every dimension he can. Many 360 degree performances stay safe with sparse set, relying on actor movement to give the audience clear sightlines. Lepage creates a puzzle box (a bit like Hellraiser, but not as Pinheady) where six actors, playing multiple multilingual characters, emerge through trapdoors and rising platforms, onto a revolving stage that changes set more often than a TV sketch show.

Circles within circles - gambling tables rise from the stage.

Perspex chairs descend from the ceiling as though lowered by helicopters, landing in a perfect circle in a meeting room. Steam rises through a pit creating an instant swimming pool. Hotel room doors rise and fall, while furniture seemingly rearranges itself. We even visit a casino, the desert, an airport, a bar, and an army base.

To watch a Robert Lepage show is really to accept the experience of a master at play. It’s best to sit back and enjoy the sensations than fight the urge to second guess him. That said, there’s plenty to hold on to: the suggestion that the Iraq war was as much a game of risk and greed as any game of roulette; the soldier who faces bigger battles within the army than in combat; and the idea that the devil can tempt a newly married couple with Celine Dion tickets.

Lepage is as thrilling as he’s ever been, and there are three more plays coming over the next eight years to follow suit.

Spades runs at the Roundhouse until 2 March, at 7pm and lasts 2hrs 30 mins without an interval. Tickets are £15-£45 available from the venue.

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  • Riverx

    I don’t know what you were watching – but I totally disagree. I have no problems with the length of it, the odd moments, but a coherent, sensible, multi-layered plot and meaning – I do require. No idea why we had to see the Danish soldier raped in minute 2 of this show (what did THAT mean…?), no idea why the maid was angry with the bellboy, no idea why the “cowboy” drugged out the couple or harassed the British gambler, first saving him, then killing him (?). Where is war in all of that? String theory? Healthcare and menopause…?

    What does this all mean, and why technically not making sure we get what he intended to say?

    In the preview the translation broke down twice and there was no attempt to let us see (by flicking them quickly) what lines we missed, so in my show unless you spoke French or Spanish – you were lost.

    Shame. And I despise the Roundhouse for not caring about their audience.

    BTW, the show was cancelled last night – announcing it to the public an hour after curtain call. Couldn’t somebody find out the fault during the day?! Abysmal.

    • EddieS

      I was there last night… there was a fault, yes, the show was cancelled, yes. But you really think they would not have tested their systems before the show? Of course they did. They handled it pretty darn well and kept us informed whilst they tried to fix it. Yes it was an inconvenience, but stuff like this happens in theatre.

      I have always had a great time at the Roundhouse and disagree that they do not care about their audience. We were treated very well last night and not only have I got a ticket to another show but a drink and programme thrown in. I’m easy to please, but they didn’t have to do that! I would recommend not going to a preview if you want to see a polished show.

    • ayak

      I agree. Saw it Saturday. Tedious in the extreme. Cancellation would have been a blessing.

  • Adam

    Saw it tonight and all ran to plan. But then I purposely didn’t book a preview, as that’s exactly what they are designed for – testing! The staging is ingenious and brilliantly creative. As you’d expect from Lepage. But the narrative needs some work. It’s all very watchable but equally very meaningless. The actors are brilliant. You can hardly believe there are only 6 actors in the whole play. Definitely worth seeing for the staging alone. But don’t expect to witness a challenging play. Oh and the Roundhouse rocks. Sh*t happens. Get over it.