Royal National Theatre (Lyttelton), London SE1
Opened 21 September, 1996

Robert Lepage's bewitchingly skewed perspectives upon both human interaction and the manners of its theatrical representation have led to the odd wag dubbing him the first "Martian" theatre director. What this seven-act, eight-hour assemblage in two chunks (see them on successive weeknights or across a full day at the weekend) proves is that, as in his earlier marathon The Dragons' Trilogy, Lepage underpins his thrilling imagistic shenanigans with a profound sympathy for ordinary human events and emotions.

Around half of The Seven Streams... was seen in the UK two years ago as a work in progress, devised by Lepage and his nine actors. At the end of its prolonged gestation period it emerges as both more calmly contemplative and more diffuse than at first suggested. The latter point is a mixed blessing: on the one hand, the knot which binds every character though still sometimes implausible is no longer as constricting as in the earlier version; on the other, the original vision of the piece as inspecting the 20th century through the odyssey of one woman has been abandoned, and with it a fair degree of focus.

Former protagonist Jana Capek is no longer seen between her ordeal as an eleven-year-old in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and her arrival in Hiroshima in 1985, at which time she takes up residency in a Zen monastery, becoming literally as well as figuratively detached from events down the mountain. This marginalisation of Jana makes a mystery of the entire penultimate act, The Interview: we have no idea why a Canadian television crew should be so interested in her because her past as an avant-garde artist, casually mentioned here, has been excised from the play.

The Seven Streams... (the title refers to the delta which flows below Hiroshima) is now held together by twin themes. The first, made explicit by the older Jana, is that of finding the "middle way" in one's life not compromise, but a path which, in Zen fashion, embraces both extremes. In quiet, undemonstrative ways, through events which range from the Nazi and atomic holocausts to a tawdry bedroom farce, each character ultimately locates and embraces his or her core identity, whether or not those surrounding may find it palatable: the most horrific scene in the work, and more disturbing still because it is depicted in an unfussy, leisurely way, is of an AIDS sufferer undergoing medically assisted suicide among friends and relations in the shockingly serene environment of his own flat.

The other recurring image is that of image itself. The play begins with a G.I. photographer recording damage in Hiroshima in late 1945; in the Nazi camp, young Jana learns how to cheat the eye as a magician's assistant (in a series of scenes which themselves take place amid an infinite regress of mirror-images); scenes and acts are interspersed with Japanese bunraku puppet-play, the interaction of human shadows and back-projected film, and a live video link into a railway-station photo-booth on the stage. The very set design, broad and low, suggests a CinemaScope kind of theatre.

All this presentational flash would be worthless were it not founded upon a deep, meditative sensitivity, not just to individual human traits but seemingly to the very fact of being human. Lepage's action unfolds at a slow, though not a tedious, pace, and does not force grand resolutions. Although the events depicted span 50 years and three continents, it is the spirit of Japan and in particular of Zen which informs the piece; the final scene is located at the mythical birthplace of Japan itself. And, as with a session of za-zen meditation, the overall experience combines cramp and a fundamentally inexpressible enlightenment.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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