Murder in the library?
We've discussed before whether shows need programme notes to make sense to an audience. But what about shows that seem ready-made for academic discussion? Eonnagata, which premiered tonight at Sadler's Wells, was perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated show in the London dance season. Ballerina Sylvie Guillem and choreographer Russell Maliphant have collaborated on several dance pieces, but what seemed mouthwatering was the involvement of magical theatre director Robert Lepage. Their project explored one of the 18th century's most fabulous self-creations, and to cap it all was dressed by fashion provocateur Alexander McQueen. It should have been unbearably exciting.
There's a very dashing show to be made about the Chevalier d'Eon. A transvestite spy, swordsman and salonnière in pre-Revolutionary France (and a relic of his own celebrity after the Revolution), s/he adopted different genders so often that in the end no-one was sure whether the Chevalier was man or woman. He possibly had more fun as a man (it was the 18th century, after all), but managed a fair bit of derring-do in skirts. You can imagine an opera, a pantomime, a very classy comedy. What you get at Sadler's Wells is a doctorate. Eonnagata practically writes its own thesis for you as it goes along.
What is gender? An essential truth, a cultural construct, a psychological choice? All of the above? Discuss - or, as here, illustrate, slowly. The three artists all play d'Eon, each embodying middlesexed figures who aren't male or female - they're just dressed that way. McQueen's clothes turn the body into an argument - swaddled in quilted kabuki wear, padded to play with gender, wrapped like a gift.
Just as costumes aren't only worn in this show, props aren't merely used. Both are, above all, fetishised. Every object onstage carries a solemn iconographic weight. The sword is the badge of masculine identity, the fan of feminine. When the elderly Chevalier is forced to peddle her celebrity in public displays of swordsmanship, the production gives us a combat between a stick and a ring, and you don't need Freud to point out what's going on.
As the title suggests, the Chevalier's story is presented through the prism of Japanese culture (the onnagata is the male actor who plays female roles in kabuki theatre). Especially as played by shaven-headed Maliphant, d'Eon the warrior seems a samuri, torn between spirituality and martial assertion. In feminine guise, she's a kabuki heroine, perhaps a doll. It's not surprising that this figure whose every aspect is symbolic should be viewed through references to Japan, which Barthes called the empire of signs.
Notation would reveal that the movement avoids straight lines - it's all curves, spirals, twisting around a question-mark identity. As d'Eon leaves childhood, the playful suspension of gender is left behind - from here on in it's a series of binary choices. Male/female - you can't embody both at once. There's a lot of threshold symbolism, stepping reluctantly through doorways. A final autopsy (the Chevalier was defined, on posthumous examination, as male) involves a harsh pendulum, tick-tocking between Guillem and Maliphant, refusing the ambiguities of blur and shadow.
The Chevalier was (along with everything else) an ardent bibliophile. Not sure that an academic treatise is the right response to her life, however. What do you get in the theatre that you couldn't on the page (even a page with a full bibliography and exhaustive footnotes)? The physical presence of three charismatic performers, lit and dressed with sculptural attention. And, in particular, Lepage's admission of age and weariness, swabbing off the greasy white facepaint when alone: you can invent a gender in public, but who are you to yourself, in your own midnight mirror?
Lepage has always been able to invest a homely image with cosmic significance - the shoe boxes that suggest a lonely city in The Dragons' Trilogy, the visual consonance between a washing machine and the moon in The Far Side of the Moon. These are breathtaking acts of imagination, playing with time and scale, grave but wonderfully playful. Eonnagata, however, stays grounded on its own deliberation. It's interesting to think about. But kind of dull to watch.
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