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A CurtainUp London London Review
Playing Cards: Spades

Because whatever you do, you cannot be sure of anything — Jeff
Playing Cards: Spades
Cast at a bar (Photo: Erick Labbe)

Robert Lepage, Canadian director superbe, launches the first of four shows at the Roundhouse in Camden, based on each suit in a pack of cards. Using the circular space, which was once a turning house for steam engines, Lepage gives us a 360 degree experience. His amazing set device is a masterpiece of design, a veritable box of tricks from which each scene change springs.

A door will rise, pivot, turn and then fold back down, a drinks bar will rise from the depths, a swimming pool is created with lights and reflections. The narratives are less important than the setting, the lighting and the scene change trickery, and this is just as well as the links between scenes can be hard to follow. As ever Lepage requires the audience to use their imagination to make of his stories what they will.

I started to make sense of the Joker in the pack as four illuminated jokers span, suspended for everyone in the audience to see. The characters of Spades are found in and around Las Vegas, a desert area hosting a city of gambling, vice and tourism. The first scene takes us by surprise; a man is held down and we are shocked when we realise we are watching male rape. Then we are lured into thinking we can recognise the King of Spades as Elvis Presley appears in the white rhinestone encrusted suit but he is a marriage celebrant and a French Canadian couple, Jean Francois or Jeff and Marie Eve, are getting married. The vows are funny, all quotes from Presley song lyrics as Jeff and Marie-Eve plight their love me tender. We see a man with a backpack trudging through the desert using the outer revolve of the raised circular stage. This desert trek is curiously rhythmic and interesting as the figure changes direction, almost flying in the round.

The American army is active in the desert training men ready for an Arab war in a mock up of an Iraqi village in Nevada. Lepage will return to parallels between the Crusades against the Muslim forces and the Western Arab wars of today in the desert. 1000 years of wars. A lone Crusader in armour with a chain mail headdress will fight with raised sword. Then we meet Mark, a businessman and recovering gambling addict who has been sent to Vegas on business by his insensitive company. His battle is with addiction and getting hjis change as a chip starts the slide. One of the soldiers, will identify with Holger the Dane of Arthurian legend, who slept until he was needed to rescue his homeland, as we doubt his sanity. Tex Ritter's cheesy song about finding God in a pack of cards, "The Deck of Cards" features.

Jeff and Marie will be tempted: Jeff into gambling and Marie by Dick the Cowboy's (or Devil) advances and the promise of a ticket to see their fellow Quebecoise Celine Dion. There will be showgirls and room maids with immigration issues. Mark will go into the desert having given his money away and leave his clothes behind. We hear the sound effects of the Pit and the Pendulum, the swish of advancing destruction. The smoke will be lit red and endings will be redemptive or hollow.

The lighting is amazing and the colour it allows. The bottles that line the bar are lit and bright and some glasses have alcohol which lights up in them. The technology and design is state of the art. The wooden circular stage sometimes seems low tech with its folding flaps, but apertures seamlessly open and close, and another room is raised. You will be surprised to see that there are only six members of the cast because the show has seemed to be peopled by many more. It is impossible to identify individual members of the cast as they are immersed in the production which they have all contributed to.

Was I mystified? Yes. Was I meant to be able to string the senses together? You decide.

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Playing Cards: Spades
Text by Silvio Arriola, Carole Faisant, Nuria Garcia, Tony Guilfoyle, Martin Haberstroh, Robert Lepage, Sophie Martin, Roberto Mori.
Directed by Robert Lepage

Starring: Silvio Arriola, Nuria Garcia, Tony Guilfoyle, Martin Haberstroh, Sophie Martin, Roberto Mori
Set designed by Jean Hazel
Costume designed by Sébastian Dionne
Composer: Philippe Bachman
Video Designer: David LeClerc
Props Design: Virginie LeClerc
Lighting: Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun
Sound: Jean-Sébastian Côté
Dramaturg: Peder Bjurman
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0844 482 8008
Booking to 2nd March 2013
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on the 11th February 2013 performance at the Roundouse, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1 8EH (Tube: Chalk Farm)

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