Sunday, 8 March 2009


8/3/09, Sadlers Wells.

1hr 25mins (no interval). Robert le Page, Sylvie Guillem, Russell Maliphant with costumes by Alexander McQueen and (mesmerising) lighting by Michael Hulls, who is apparently a regular collaborator of Maliphant's.

The subject: the 18th century Chevalier d'Eon, who lived the latter part of his life as a woman and died in poverty in London after the French Revolution after a remarkable career as a soldier and spy in the service of the king of France. So he lived a double (split) life and kept 'em guessing right up until the autopsy. The title: a pun on d'Eon's name and on "onnagata", the men-who-play-women in traditional Japanese theatre.

Twenty years of serious theatre-going and I've never seen anything by the legendary Canadian director, never seen Guillem dance in the flesh, never (I think) seen anything choreographed by Maliphant. What would the three of them come up with?

In the event it was neither one thing nor the other really (a bit like the poor old Chevalier): a succession of stunning tableaux set to an atmospheric soundscape and an eclectic selection of music. I found myself wanting more dance or more narrative: we got snatches of both, along with mime and a succession of "how did they do that?" transformation scenes. Guillem is astonishing, her body impossibly lithe, though her French accent (and her emphases) was too strong for easy comprehension when she spoke, addressing the audience directly. Maliphant, shaven-headed, has a strong, dancer's physique and a perfect English accent despite his Canadian ancestry (but he was brought up in Cheltenham). Le Page has a tuft of bright red hair and a very slight French-Canadian twang when he speaks.

Visually it was perpetually inventive. In the second tableau Maliphant is on stage swinging a cavalry sabre (d'Eon was a cavalry officer and a renowned swordsman), a series of ringing metallic swishes on the soundtrack, narrow rectangles flashing onto the floor picking up on a reference in Guillem's opening monologue to flashes of lightning. It was breathtaking and exciting... but it led nowhere. Though this was one show where being in the second circle was a positive advantage since it showed the lighting to perfection (even if one could also see the performers scampering off behind the scenery on occasion, when they would have been hidden from the stalls).

I thought a slightly later scene might also lead nowhere: Le Page comes on in a spectacular McQueen confection, part white frock coat, part skirt hoops, with a huge red fan. He poses with it. And then he poses again. And then he poses some more. And then, just as you're getting seriously bored, he folds it and inserts it between his legs. A visual pun on the Chevalier's split personality and one repeated often, in particular in a scene with a table-that-became-a-mirror (not sure how) and first Guillem and then Maliphant stood at its end doing a Harry Worth.

In another scene the three dance and roll and slide over three tables; then tip the tables over so they lose their tops. They become frames, a bit like beds, or doors when upended. And inside them is fluorescent light, sometimes blue, sometimes purple.

The sabres appear often, one (when d'Eon is writing a letter) doubling as a gigantic quill pen. Yet when the aged d'Eon, dressed as a woman, mounts a demonstration of martial arts in London (his pension from the French king has dried up after the Revolution and he needs to earn a living) Le Page and Maliphant use sticks and hoops.

The Japanese references seemed limited largely to kimono-style costumes (and those sticks). There was a striking scene in which Maliphant emerges from an outsize kabuki-style figure. Another, presented as shadow play behind a gauze, has Maliphant discarding his cavalryman's tunic and approaching a kimono on a stand. He crouches down, apparently to climb up inside, and you realise he's turned into Guillem, who gyrates sensuously in the folds of the garment, before emerging through the gauze onto the stage.

She and Maliphant wear body stockings with markings reminiscent of early anatomy textbooks. All three play d'Eon at different times, sometimes in frock coat or military tunic, sometimes in kimonos, sometimes in elaborate wigs and hooped skirts.

A complained she wasn't always clear what was happening. I thought I was; I just wished rather more happened to justify the visual spectacle.

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