Thursday, March 26, 2020

I Saw the End of the World

The Seven Streams of the River Ota
It seems horribly appropriate that the last piece of theatre I saw before the country went into lockdown was Robert Lepage's The Seven Streams of the River Ota. The play is overwhelmingly concerned with 'apocalyptic' catastrophes - the Hiroshima bomb, the Shoah, the AIDS epidemic. In the Lyttleton auditorium, for a sell-out theatrical occasion, there were empty seats all around.  Walking through Central London on a Saturday night, the streets were eerily deserted. Even the Gents loo was a markedly changed space, with orderly queues forming as men meticulously washed their hands.

I had seen the play twice before: once in a very early version, which concentrated largely on Jana Capek and her experiences in the Terezin camp; and then in the first full version of the mid 1990s. It was a significant, formative experience for me: I was fascinated by the global reach and epic scale of a piece that was also, in many ways, like a soap opera, and thrilled by its technical panache and daring theatricality. Lepage's great skill has always been the theatrical magic of transformation - by turning something into something else, he suggests all kinds of links between narrative moments and characters' experiences, frequently leaping across time and space. It was wonderful to revisit the stunning moment when a silhouette of a Japanese doll transforms into the living woman who gave the doll to her American lover as a present for his child - the meaning of the gift for the man becomes movingly present in the performer's body.

Perhaps it was because the production was so theatrically thrilling that I hadn't been quite so aware in the 90s of its deep preoccupation with cataclysmic events, or perhaps it was because the current context made the content so much more intense than the form? Looking over the published text, I realised that Lepage and his collaborators had made a number of alterations to the piece, and these also shifted the balance of the play. In the 90s, the director and company (and this spectator) were significantly younger, and there was a great sense of youthful energy in the play, resisting the potential for the events portrayed to provoke a nihilistic response. I remember hearing Lepage talk about the inspiration for the play being a visit he made to Hiroshima, where he had expected to find a city dominated by tragedy, and instead discovered vitality, creativity, energy. The 1996 text begins with a Prologue by the older Jana, which makes the same point: "If Hiroshima is a city of death and destruction, it is also a city of rebirth and survival." The current version begins instead with the figure of the child Hanako, blinded by the atomic bomb, and her elder self speaking far more portentous lines, which recur later in the show: "I saw the end of the world." So I don't think it was just me or the coronavirus - I think there was a real shift in the emphasis of the play.

I suppose this might be partly to do with the recent criticisms Lepage has received around issues of cultural appropriation. The cases of SLAV and Kanata have been much discussed - and I have written elsewhere about the question of representation in Ota.  Here's an extract from my Module on Post-Colonial Theatre for Rose Bruford College:
The issues around multi-lingualism in this play relate closely to the fact that it was created with international touring in mind, and so reflect the possibility of diverse audiences. Much of the play is about the business of being an audience, the act of looking. There’s one truly extraordinary moment at the end of the section about the older Jana looking at her own memories of Terezin, when “the lights switch so that the audience can see its own reflection in the downstage mirrors”. In an instant, our spectatorship of the event is foregrounded as a crucial part of the event’s meaning.
Yet, the question surely arises, who are ‘we’? With the exception of Jana, who is only the spectator figure in this one section, when she is also the object of the gaze as her younger self; the spectator figures in Ota tend to be Québécois. What’s more, Québécois on their travels. These figures, (e.g. Patricia, Walter, Sophie, Pierre) are observers, through whom we approach the Otherness of other cultures, whether this be Japan (as, for example, when Pierre, and the audience, watch Hanako’s demonstration of butoh) or Terezin (when Patricia interviews Jana).
This Québécois mediation is perhaps to be expected from a Québécois company – even the actress performing Hanako was Québécoise – but it suggests an assumption of audience viewpoint. In Québec, the play would probably have felt like a meditation on bi-lingual Québécois culture in the context of globalisation. Indeed, in his film , Lepage reworks sections of the play alongside a narrative about the referendum on Québec’s proposed secession from the rest of Canada. This audience would, crucially, have understood all the passages in both French and English. There would therefore be no sense of any of the North American or Western European characters as Other: that status is reserved for the Czechs and the Japanese. To other Canadian audiences, however, the French passages would have been more obscure, having the effect of making the play a statement about the Québécois culture as itself Other to them. It’s the Québécois audience that would have related most fully to the way French becomes a langue-identité in the play.
For a European audience (and, as the list of tour dates in the front of the printed script suggests, most of the audiences were European), the play’s effect would be different again. European languages and theatre forms are the main route in to the play, so this audience also feels close to the Québécois tourist characters. For them, however, the specific Canadian resonance of their bi-lingualism is not so important (or, perhaps, even apparent). The use of French simply becomes another part of the play’s post-modern engagement with the global village, another site for the audience’s essential process of translation (of which much is made in the play).
The one audience which would, I feel, have responded very differently to the play is the Japanese one: the only audience for this ‘global’ project which was not from the Western hemisphere (though, like all the rest, it was from the Northern hemisphere). Japanese culture is presented in the play through the mediating gaze of the Québécois tourists (and the American soldier Luke). This is, in many ways, a commendable thing for Lepage to have done: he hasn’t presumed to know Japanese culture from inside. But this makes it all the odder to present the finished work to an audience who do know the culture, because they live it. To see oneself presented as Other must be strange indeed.
The 2020 version of the play has certainly taken on board much of the criticism around casting: the Japanese characters are now played by actors with East Asian heritage, and Hanako's appearance at the start of the play makes for a stark contrast with the European mediation offered by Jana's Prologue. The opening speech being given to this blind Japanese woman had the effect of distancing the audience from the material, rather than drawing them in. This was actually very powerful, as the subsequent sequence around the American soldier Luke and his slowly developing love for Hanako's mother Nozomi is an example of a Western character leading the audience into a relationship with a Japanese Other, and that was constantly offset by our ongoing awareness of Hanako's prologue. So I found it all the stranger that the order of the Parts had been altered, so that the adult Hanako was first encountered as a translator for Québécois visitors to Japan, rather than (as in the 1996 version) as a compassionate presence at the assisted suicide of her half-brother. This made her ancillary to the Québécois characters, rather than a powerful presence with her own agency.

I suspect this change of order reflects another aspect of the artists' shift over a quarter century, which is a more circumspect approach to sexuality. In the original structure, the French farce on tour in Japan and its parallels in the lives of performers and diplomats came quite late on, with the play acquiring a more comic tone as it rushed towards a climactic celebration of life and zest, particularly in the Québécois dancer Pierre's sexual liaisons with both Hanako and her son David. In the 2020 version, which reflects a post-#MeToo mentality, David has disappeared as a character, and the sexual element in Pierre's encounter with Hanako is hugely downplayed in comparison with their artistic relationship. The seedy diplomat Walter no longer seems a figure of fun after Weinstein, and the weirdly erotic Japanese puppet play, which was theatrically extraordinary in 1996, has completely disappeared. I guess it was problematic both in terms of racial and sexual politics - but I still rather missed it.

Without the growing sexual energy of the latter sections, the seven-hour play seemed less resolved than in 1996 - and maybe that also reflects the uncertainty of the current moment. The play still ends with a Québécois artist making work that attempts to bring many cultural strands together: all of Lepage's pieces seem to end in this way, even Kanata, but it no longer seems to carry the conviction that creativity is the answer to everything. The new Ota is rightly aware of our current moment as a time of disturbance and deep uncertainty.

We left the theatre, and locked ourselves into our homes. When we emerge again, there will be huge questions around how we can meet and gather in our theatres, our polities, our globalised space.

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