DramaLondonReview

The Seven Streams of the River Ota – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

 Creators: Ex Machina

Director: Robert Lepage

Last seen at the National Theatre in 1996, Robert Lepage’s epic returns with just a few changes to mark the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. All recent tragedies are remembered in this seven-hour marathon – the Nazi prison camps, AIDS, and the increase of nuclear testing, suggesting that we have learnt nothing from history at all. But while Lepage’s show is bleak, it is also full of redemption.

As the play covers 50 years from 1945 to 1995, the story is necessarily episodic, but each time period is separated into one of seven acts, running from between 30 and 60 minutes, and they could almost stand alone as each has its own narrative arc. All stories, however, return to Hiroshima, the city of survivors, and the house that sits on the River Ota. It is from this house that a girl, Aniko, watches the bomb fall and the atomic flame blaze as it burns out her eyes.

We begin with this image, and it is Aniko, blind and untouched, who is the most central figure of the play. Soon after the end of the war, an American soldier comes to visit her mother. He’s been tasked in taking photographs of the bomb’s damage on Hiroshima, on the landscape and on the people. It is photography that links the decades that follow.

The American’s son will teach his brother how to develop pictures in a shared bathroom of a tenement building in New York in the 1960s. A few years later a Canadian actress touring a French farce in Japan finds out she’s pregnant, and takes a series of pictures in a photo booth at a railway station. In Amsterdam in the 1980s, a Dutch opera singer steals a book of photographs from a library devoted to World War Two, while a holocaust survivor has her pictures taken standing in the ruins of Hiroshima. Lastly, in the 90s a young dancer looks through photos of Aniko deciding which one is the most authentic.

We also watch the action, some of it tenderly slow, through another lens of sorts. The play is mostly set in the Japanese house, with screens ingeniously conjuring up prison camps and theatres, houseboats and restaurants. The windows and doors frame images, with some of the dialogue deliberately muffled, happening behind glass. And yet, despite this love of artifice, Lepage also reveals how it is done. We witness the backstage of a farce, the actors ready to appear triumphantly in doors, we see how an interview between two people is filmed with only one camera and we learn how a magician conceals his assistant in a black box.

Along with the stylised acting – no one raises their voice, and vital concerns are discussed in deadpan voices – the framing does lead to some distancing, but with seven hours’ investment we care for these people, even though their stories fade as other characters are brought forward. Umihiko Miya is affecting as the deferential Japanese visitor to New York, his eyes not quite believing what he is seeing. As Ada, Rebecca Blankenship is understated and collapses quietly with grief. Richard Fréchette brings comedy to his role as the Canadian ambassador, humiliatingly interviewed by his ex-wife.

But the worlds that all the actors – and the technicians – produce from their house of tricks are breath-taking and. with Sonoyo Nishikawa’s dramatic light design, every image in the show looks like a photograph, exquisitely framed.

It’s good to have Lepage back and let’s hope that he has more epics up his sleeve, as these seven hours and fifty years go by in a flash.

Runs until 22 March 2020

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