Playing Cards 1: Spades, Roundhouse, London

Quebecois director Robert Lepage is a master at making theatrical magic out of simple ideas. In The Far Side of the Moon, a humble washing machine door helped to forge a link between personal grief and a much deeper existential loneliness. In Spades, the first of four shows named after playing card suits, he takes the notion of a circular card table, at which people flirt with fortune, and extrapolates to a huge 360-degree playing space with a revolving outer rim. The result looks fabulous and has symbolic resonance: everybody in the piece goes round in circles and their lives gradually spiral together. But despite the mesmerising staging, the piece is disappointing: it conjures vast themes, but doesn’t get far in exploring them.

The ace of spades has been employed symbolically by the US military in the past and the piece is set in 2003, as the Iraq war looms. The action shifts between a mock-up Iraqi desert village, where soldiers practise for war, and Las Vegas, where they go to relax. The brash Nevada desert city becomes a microcosm. The soldiers, dicing their future, bump up against other characters whose fortunes are in the balance: a young, mismatched couple taking a chance on marriage; a gambling addict on the verge of losing everything; an illegal immigrant risking discovery for her health. Flitting through it all is a Mephistophelean figure: a card-sharp in a cowboy hat.

Big themes – the west’s relationship with the Arab world and the cyclical nature of history; the interplay of chance and free will; patterns of death and rebirth – rub up against personal crises, as they do in real life. But here it all feels over-engineered; the social issues and political debate are awkwardly incorporated and superficially discussed. Characters remain sketchy and underwritten because we only touch on their lives and then move on.

The fluidity of the stage choreography is hypnotising, as Lepage, his astonishingly versatile cast and expert technical team use the space above and below the stage to create a magic chest of tricks. Instant sets and myriad characters pop up from beneath the stage like figures in a musical box. But beguiling as this is, the content doesn’t gel. So often Lepage’s cumulative style is brilliantly revelatory. But here you end up feeling it is not just the cast who have been going round in circles.

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