Review: Playing Cards 1: Spades

By Paul Lester, February 14, 2013

Roundhouse, London NW1

Spades’ setting around the Iraq war fails to add depth to the narratives

Spades’ setting around the Iraq war fails to add depth to the narratives

There is a lot to admire about this technically brilliant offering from renowned French-Canadian director Robert Lepage. For a start, it is a measure of Lepage’s skill that at two and a half hours without an interval, the evening goes remarkably quickly.

This is the first in a series of four shows, each of which has a card suit as its theme. Spades is set in Las Vegas in 2003 against the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq. There are no wings from which the actors take to the stage. Rather they pop up through the trap doors in a giant turntable, on which all the action takes place.

Designed by Jean Hazel, there are apparently 36 of these portals, each of which opens with an ingenious hinge mechanism or a door that folds like a sheet of origami. This is a “360-degree performance”, the programme tells us, as if in-the-round theatre is something new. But there is something remiss when stagecraft and design overshadows the story it is there to tell.

Spades has the feel of one of those brilliantly devised shows whose themes, characters and plot evolve over an intensely creative period of writing and rehearsal. Lepage expertly interweaves the various threads. But other than the unwell Mexican hotel chambermaid whose illegal immigrant status prevents her from seeking a doctor, there are few fates here about which we care deeply.

Other characters include a British TV executive whose dormant gambling addiction is re-ignited, an estranged couple we first encounter being married by a Vegas Elvis, and two soldiers — one Spanish, the other Danish — who are part of the international coalition being trained for duty in Iraq at a nearby desert base.

“There is no end to this war. This crusade against Islam has been going on for thousands of years,” the Dane warns his comrade. It is the kind of “war on terror” observation that, right or wrong, politically-engaged theatre has been airing for 10 years. Here it feels like an attempt to add depth to multiple shallow narratives.

What is strange, though, is that, Spades is never boring. Scenes and themes are in a constant flux as they merge into one another. And when the curtain call reveals just six actors who play the many characters, you get a sense of the sheer organisational skill underpinning the show. But because none of its themes is explored with any real depth, you leave wondering whether it was worth all the effort. (

Last updated: 11:56am, February 14 2013