Darkness. Light. Skeletons. Silk. Red. White. Black. What’s startling about Eonnagata, a collaboration between Sylvie Guillem, Russell Maliphant and Robert Lepage, is not its sophistication but its simplicity. There’s no theatrical technique here that wasn’t wowing audiences two millennia ago: it’s all music, shadows, mirrors and light. But it’s all done so skillfully, so precisely that these age-old methodologies seem newly-minted, plucked fresh from the air.
The subject of the show is Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (try fitting that on a credit card) otherwise known as the Chevalier d’Eon, a French poet, soldier, diplomat and spy of the 18th century who also found time to live half his/her life as a woman, the other as a man: onnagata is a Kabuki tradition of men who play female roles. Like a real-life Orlando, d’Eon flickers through the history of the period — here a vengeful warrior, there a girl about town — without ever quite coalescing into something absolutely whole. The same could be said of this episodic, occasionally irritating work, but it’s a thrilling, captivating evening nonetheless.
There are two main problems. First, the show never quite figures out how to fit together spectacle and narrative, with the result that d’Eon’s life is narrated largely in a series of monologues, slipped between sequences of dance. Second, as so often when artists from different disciplines work together, each tends to hold the others back. Lepage, for example is no dancer — he moves like a slightly constipated frog — and his clumsiness inhibits Guillem’s beguiling grace. But still, there are exquisite moments: Maliphant’s robust silhouette dissolving into Guillem’s brushstroke form; the two of them together in a doorway, rapt in passion, drenched in light; a final, chilling tableau as d’Eon slips from life. All of these are brilliantly done, their technical perfection matched by their emotional power. The costumes too, by Alexander McQueen, are astonishing: rich, flowing and as changeable as the Chevalier him/herself.
Above all though, this is theatre stripped down to its basics, its illusions older than drama itself. That’s what makes it so exciting, and why, days afterward, it haunts your mind. Like the Chevalier d’Eon, things change, things stay the same, things change.