The Seven Streams of the River Ota begins with a white man in Japan and it ends with a white man in Japan.
I am being a little glib, probably, but glibness was the feeling with which I left the Lyttleton after seven hours of profoundly uneven theatre, after cycling through intrigue, frustration, boredom, peace, delirium, wonder, resignation, and annoyance. After leaving the theatre with my mother, she said breezily, “Well, you can’t deny that it was an amazing feat.”
Lepage’s piece, first performed in 1994, is certainly pretty epic. It’s bookended by two white men coming to the same house in Japan – the first, in 1945, is a Texan soldier sent to Hiroshima post-bomb to take photos of the damage done. (“I have to take them,” he says, in a telling moment of self-awareness which he then immediately disgards. “I know it may be painful for you, but it is important for the army.”) The second white man, in 1999, is a young French-Canadian dancer who comes to the same house decades later to learn Japanese Butoh dance.
Inbetween, Lepage curls and loops a continent-spanning story over the course of several decade-long intervals. Ostensibly, it’s all funnelled through the perspective of Hanako, who was rendered blind by the explosion, but she remains an enigma. Instead, characters fade in and out of focus – some coming to the fore like photos developing in a darkroom after spending several acts lingering in the background. At its best, Seven Streams is elegiac and ghostly and humane, laced through with sardonic humour and moments of extreme, often wordless pain. At its worst, it can feel horribly tone-deaf and creaks like an old fogey – which of course, it is.
Lepage uses Hiroshima as a starting gun to wind his way around some the most prominent, terrible events of the back half of the twentieth century, like the Holocaust and the AIDs epidemic, in an effort to make the point that we humans are resilient and maybe not all that different in the end, really. What we get is a fully Western point of view – specifically, a French-Canadian point of view – on a century of atrocities. It’s never exactly presented as a “neutral” perspective, but Lepage attempting to distil down the 20th century in order to make this a truly “human” story feels pretty flattening.
I understand that the intention was probably never really to make this about Japan. But it is frustrating to see an entire country and its generational trauma used as a launchpad to talk about globalised human fallibility and resistance. It retains some level of self-awareness – at one point, Hanako breaks the fourth wall and turns to the translator who is relying her words to the audience in English. “That is not what I said,” she says firmly. The translator stutters, adjusts his dark glasses, and corrects himself. Individual moments like this, however, aren’t really enough. The sixth section of the piece takes place around the 25th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb, and follows a French-Canadian journalist conducting interviews about the anniversary with two non-Japanese characters. I cannot for the life of me figure out if this was a piece of self-aware commentary from Lepage.
Maybe Lepage constantly wants us to be aware of varying points of view – that first section in Japan, after all, is titled “Moving Images”, and there is a constant thread throughout the whole piece about methods of looking and watching. Everything is framed, first within that gargantuan, landscape Lyttleton stage, and then within Carl Fillon and Ariane Sauvé’s astonishingly metamorphic design, with all its sliding doors and screens and partitions. Seven Streams is strongest when Lepage lets the images do the talking – the New York segment, which takes place in a cramped 60s apartment block, is just gorgeous. There’s a sequence with a timelapse in a shared bathroom which is breathtaking in its mundanity and evocation of loneliness in a big city. Everything in Seven Streams has a choreographed, painterly balance to it – a precisely followed golden ratio. It is both quietly, cleverly self-aware and absolutely, frustratingly guileless.
Lepage has come under fire for cultural appropriation in the past. I don’t like that term, because it’s morphed into an unhelpful umbrella term and also functions as a dog-whistle of sorts, but what’s clear is that Lepage uses and has used other cultures throughout his career with a certain amount of reckless abandon. His 2018 show, Kanata, was intended as an exploration of the dynamics between colonisers and the Indigenous people of the First Nations, but did not include any Indigenous people either in the cast or production. So my worry prior to coming into this 25 year old show was that Seven Streams would be an Orientalist wet dream. It isn’t that. Well, not quite. For the most part, there is an apparently genuine sense of reverence for the Japanese people and culture. Tetsuya Kudaka provides beautiful, accomplished musical accompaniment for the entirety of the seven hours. There are, however, multiple admiring and seemingly self-serious references to Madam Butterfly which incurred a massive eye roll between me and my mum. The reference isn’t really interrogated – rather, it’s just used as a way of talking about trauma and violence in a more generalised sense – so not totally dissimilar to the way Lepage uses Japan.
Does the sincerity of the intention override the ultimate effect? Probably it does for others, but not for me. It was annoying, and I didn’t like it. And anyway, all that sincerity is undercut by Lepage having a white actress play a Japanese woman (conveniently, her back is always turned to the audience) with what I am going to very tactfully describe as a Team America-esque attempt at a Japanese accent. “L”s replacing “R”s, and the like. It is quite a thing. Robert, buddy, you already cast two Japanese actors in your 10-strong cast. What’s one more? Is that really going to break the bank? Once we hit the six hour mark and the final act began, and a young white man walked onstage, staring in open-mouthed wonder at the sights of Japan, my initial thought was “Ah, of course,” and then it was “Sure. Whatever. Who cares anymore?”
Seven Streams is low-key problematic – the kind of problematic which maybe isn’t instantly, appallingly egregious enough to get picked up, but which gets a few eyebrow raises then brushed off because it’s 25 years old and Lepage is the granddaddy of modern theatre. And yeah, it’s 25 years old, but it’s being staged now, and I watched it in 2020 in our Royal National Theatre, so that counts for something, I think. I’m torn on it. I’ve always been told that criticism requires you to review the show that you’re seeing, not the one that you want to see. But what if you don’t want to see the show that you’re seeing? What if you’ve seen variations on that theme many times before – and not just in theatre, but in almost every form of Western media? What if that show that you are watching is, for the most part, continuing to perpetuate a point of view that we’ve seen regurgitated again and again and again? I am getting quite tired of watching shows which are, to some degree, self-aware of their own failings but then don’t really do much with that self-awareness except point it out and then continue going about their business. Shows about humanity’s supposed collective resilience are frustrating as hell. Who gets to be in that collective? Who gets to decide? Robert Lepage, evidently.
Seven Streams of the River Ota was on at National Theatre in March 2020. More info here.