Tramway @ S.E.C.C., Glasgow/Royal National Theatre (Lyttelton), London SE1
Opened 1 April, 1999

Robert Lepage is a man who delights in bringing together in his presentations disparate elements, perspectives and personalities this is the man, after all, who in his Needles And Opium gave us the combination of Jean Cocteau and Miles Davis. This time the odd couple are architectural pioneer Frank Lloyd Wright and Armenian mystic Georgi Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Wright's third wife Olgivanna had been a disciple of Gurdjieff's, and their daughter Iovanna, after a similar period, brought Gurdjieffian programmes of thought raining and spiritual dancing to integrate and clash with the holistic approach to architectural and engineering activities at Wright's Taliesin Foundation.

Founding a stage piece on the linkage between the father of "organic" architecture and the man who taught that individuals need to awaken from their spiritual sleep is an inspired move, the more so because Lepage's approach to theatre is fundamentally in sympathy with both men's philosophies the Quebecois wizard is one of a handful of practitioners transcendentally "awake" (in Gurdjieff's sense) to the storytelling, imagistic and emotional possibilities of theatre. And yet Geometry Of Miracles (which I saw at Glasgow's SECC as part of the peripatetic "Tramway@" programme), although taking the same approach as Lepage's previous masterpieces The Dragons' Trilogy and The Seven Streams Of The River Ota, is only patchily wondrous.

Perhaps familiarity has begun to breed contempt; having grown acquainted with Lepage's brand of lateral thinking, we are no longer shocked and enchanted into new ways of seeing. When, for instance, the president of Johnson's Wax dictates a letter to his secretary, and tap-dances vigorously on the table to supply the clacking sounds of her mimed typewriter, it seems a neat gimmick rather than a minor coup de théâtre. As I watched Gurdjieff hold a conversation with a giant rotating eyeball, instead of searching for symbolism within the play my mind wandered to similar pranks by American art-rock band The Residents. At one or two points the "spiritual dances" seem no more than hackneyed theatre-machine exercises. Lepage also, unusually, leaves some connections unexplained and even unhinted-at: we see that Roderigue Proteau (a Quebecker putting on a heavy Caucasian accent) doubles as Gurdjieff and the stalking, throat-singing Beelzebub who twice tempts Wright (Tony Guilfoyle in a first-rate sardonic performance) in the desert, and we may make vague connections with Christ, but nowhere are we told what Lepage plainly knows and a few of us might also, independently, have learnt: that Gurdjieff's major prose work is whimsically entitled Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson.

Now and again, too, Lepage seems not to know when to stop. Gurdjieff's frustration at his disciples' lack of individuality is fully conveyed within the first two or three minutes of a lengthy scene of dramatic follow-my-leader, but on it goes, and on again until the guru, in Douglas Adams's great phrase, "dies testily". Similarly, the piece as a whole seems to have three or four successive codas. Lepage can keep an audience spellbound for seven hours and more, so to say of this less than three-hour work that it begins to drag towards the end is a serious matter. Of course, by anyone else's standards, it is a tremendous production, almost effortlessly reinventing space and modes of performance... but I fear that Lepage may have spoilt us so that, from him, we now expect more than "mere" excellence.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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