Robert Lepage, Sylvie Guillem, Russel Maliphant
With lighting designer Michael Hulls, costume designer Alexander McQueen and sound designer Jean-Sébastien Côté
Sony Centre, Toronto - November 19
Eonnagata is stunning production visually, from costumes by the late Alexander McQueen to dramatic lighting, staging and lighting effects that added whole dimensions to both the production and space on stage. As good theatre does, it offers an absorbing visual spectacle as it ponders questions of human existence.
The piece tells the story of one Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont (5 October 1728 – 21 May 1810), Chevalier d’Éon, born in France and died in England - "...buried in Middlesex between a missus and a bloke" as Sylvie Guillem's opening scene recitation tells us. Quite attractive no matter which way he was leaning, Charles claimed later in life that he was born as a girl, but raised as a boy for reasons of inheritance rights. At any rate, he began a military career as a man, although he was sidetracked into spying for the French kings against Russia and Great Britain - as a woman.
Eonnagata illustrates his story in poetically stylized fashion in the tradition of Japanese Onnagata, a Kabuki theatre technique, the segments more dance and movement than strictly theatre. Theatrical sleights of hand like sparks coming from a sword or performers vanishing into shadow only to reappear as someone else enhanced both the theme and the story itself. Clever staging adds striking elements like tables that double as mirrors. These are put to vivid use to illustrate gender ambiguity in dance, as in one segment that featured Robert and Sylvie, and offered the question - which is real, which reflection? Rather than take sides on the question, Eonnagata suggests de Beaumont was in fact both - a kind of meditation on gender and human identity itself.
In real life, even authorities from the British medics who pronounced him a woman after tending to him on the battlefield, (resulting in his losing his dragoonship,) to those who performed the autopsy and pronounced him anatomically male, wavered constantly, demanding that he appear and live as one or the other according to their own purposes.
Musical segments alternate with snippets of narration, including the opening poem, letters read aloud, a few from King Louis XV requesting the spying missions (dressed as a woman) to the Russian and British courts. We also hear Charles/Charlotte's indignant letters back to France after Louis XV died and hostile successor Louis XVI insisted he could return only if he lived as a woman. - this last was the most affecting, articulating the everyday indignities he faced.
Check some of it out here.
He did return to France as a woman, under protest, but was also prescient enough - or perhaps still well connected diplomatically - to escape France just before the Revolution left so many other heads separated from their noble born shoulders. He was used by Kings, the subject of relentless speculation and gossip - with the pundits left never quite sure, the riddle never entirely solved.
Charles sadly died in England, impoverished, denied his pensions and the income from his estate in Burgundy by the French Revolutionary government.
The crowd's appreciation was immediate and enthusiastic - on its collective feet after Friday's final performance of this fascinating piece in Toronto.
P.S. This was my first time in spiffed up Sony Centre - thumbs up to the comfier seating.