Saturday, March 07, 2009

Theatre Review: Eonnagata

Conceived and performed by
Sylvie Guillem, Robert Lepage, Russell Maliphant

Sadler’s Wells, London
23 June - 27 June 2009

Review by Sophie Mayer

If I had a time machine, I would spin back to Québec, 1986 to see 29 year old theatrical wunderkind Robert Lepage creating Vinci, his one-man take on the polymathic inventor and artist. da Vinci has clearly been a tutelary figure throughout Lepage’s career, as he has fearlessly invented new ways of working in theatre, from his amazing ensemble-building and rehearsal, through the use of film and video, to his crazy-to-the-point-of-unworkable props and sets.

None of those are on show in Eonnagata, a piece of dance theatre conceived by Lepage with choreographer Russell Maliphant and dancer Sylvie Guillem, who have worked together previously. With lighting design by Maliphant’s regular collaborator Michael Hulls and an emphasis on dance given by the Sadler’s Wells setting, this would seem to be very much a Maliphant/Guillem show. Dance critics Judith Mackrell (The Guardian) and Zoe Anderson (The Independent) certainly approach it as such, enjoying the dance language, especially Guillem and Maliphant’s duets, and praising Lepage’s efforts. He may be a non-dancer, but he’s always been an incredibly physical performer. No wonder they are puzzled about what it all adds up to: by approaching Eonnagata as dance, they’re really confined to praising the dance, which I found boring: yes, Maliphant and Guillem’s duet represents them trying to morph into a single transgendered body, but why then use the clichéd gendered language of ballet (Maliphant lifts; Guillem is lifted)?

What the dance critics missing are the elements of Lepage’s work that are on show in Eonnagata: not just the cerebral investigation of gender and identity that also marked Lepage’s Needles and Opium (a solo show about Jean Cocteau) and his more recent Andersen Project, or even his affinity for, and research into, Japanese theatrical culture – from which the show takes the second half of its name, onnagata, the tradition of male actors playing female characters. Nor is it just his love of sword fighting, first seen in Elsinore, when he staged Hamlet’s duel with Laertes solo, with a fencing foil that had a camera mounted on the end. It’s the theatre of it, the investigation of and through spectacle and storytelling, through the echoes between text and gesture.

In fact, sword- and stick-fighting are key to Eonnagata’s movement, from a solitary Lepage wielding his sword with great elegance at the back of the stage to a witty vaudevillian stick-fight between Lepage and Maliphant. The swoops of the silvery swords refract Hulls’ brilliant lights across the stage, acting as costume and set as well as extensions of the performers’ gestures (although they always seem a bit lightweight; only Lepage is able to perform the weight of a sword in his movements). The sticks resound satisfyingly against the floor and each other, contributing to the warped beatscape composed by Jean-Sébastien Côté. They make visible an invisible conflict and its source.

The first part of the title refers to the Chevalier d’Eon, a diplomat (ie: spy) who was – great phrase – a member of the King’s Secret under Louis XV. So there’s the opportunity for drama aplenty already: the shadow of the Revolution, Louis’ affairs with Madame du Pompadour and Madame du Barry, Voltaire’s exile. It’s a time of upheaval in France, a time in which identity’s fixed nature is being rethought in terms of class. But also gender. And the Chevalier d’Eon offers a complex – if vexed – figure for thinking about gender in the Ancien Regime. d’Eon served as a diplomat in London until a riding accident revealed that he was female; recalled to Paris and forced into women’s clothes, she was made a pet at court and continued to dress as a woman until her death revealed that (as far as I can make out from the ribald poem Lepage recites) he was anatomically male. Other accounts say that d’Eon used female clothing in the service of his spying, and demanded to be recognised as female by the French government in order to end his exile in London.

d’Eon defied all sorts of gender norms, including offering to lead a brigade of women against the Austrians. His/her biological sex remains an open question, and its this ambiguity that Eonnagata explores most appealingly, while never making light of the social challenges that d’Eon faced. All that sword- and stick-waving stands for inner conflict, absolutely, but also for a social conflict that could be paralleled to the American War of Independence or French Revolution, for the right of gender self-determination. Phallic and physically aggressive, the sticks also suggests the aspects of the old order threatened by d’Eon’s contingent fluidity, which raises three possibilities that disturb the Good Old Boys of the French government: that a woman could successfully achieve the same military and diplomatic success as a man; that a man may choose to forego male privilege and live as a woman; and, thirdly, that male and female identities aren’t so clear-cut as that, that they rest in a set of constructions and assumptions dependent on gendered codes of activities, attitude and costume.

It’s the costume, designed by Alexander McQueen, that allows for the most fun, and make clear the dizzying range of references at play in the show, from music hall to kabuki. The costumes are inherently theatrical, and they point to the theatricality of gender – and to the fact that theatre is a site where gender has often been blurred and contested. In the stick fight, onnagata meets Widow Twanky. The incidents that act as a framework – d’Eon’s frightening return to France and robing as a woman, for example – all comment specifically on how clothes maketh the (wo)man. Seductive, beautiful, surprisingly robust and agile, McQueen’s costumes make transvestism – or better, sartorial androgyny – seem both impossibly glamorous and attractively practical.

McQueen is known for his cutting and structure, and his costumes here reveal the bones beneath. Whether transparent kimonos or pastiched crinolines, the costumes are slashed and opened to allow the dancing body to move, and to be visible in its movements. Under their various guises, the three quick-change artists wear all-over leotards covered with a web of lines (deliciously, Guillem’s had a codpiece to shape her silhouette in accord with her fellow dancers). In a particularly eerie sequence in which an upturned table becomes a boat, a cell, a womb, a cradle (all places where we are thrown back on our bodies, and all analogies for the body) the lines glow blue with ultraviolet light, alien veins turning the body inside out.

In that, they are reminiscent of da Vinci’s tireless diagramming of the body. Lepage’s final pose – spreadeagled on a table that is d’Eon’s deathbed – is that of da Vinci’s universal man. But inverted. Simple, arresting, grounded, embodied: when it refused the ethereality of ballet (associated with Guillem as the ‘female’ Chevalier) Eonnagata offered a glimpse of a beguiling, shifting, playful yet politicised hybrid, a form that brilliantly mirrored its subject. But Guillem’s bite feminine should have been visible long before she took her bow; its promise – and its obfuscation – mark the two sides of this show that hasn’t quite found the unity of self that d’Eon clearly did.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at

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