Detail of a photo of Robert Lepage. Photo by Érick Labbé and courtesy of the Sony Centre.
Eonnagata lives between worlds: half theatre and half dance, part French and part kabuki, its main character a sword-wielding diplomat who lived life by turns as a man and as a woman.
Eonnagata tells the story of Charles de Beaumont, Chevalier d’Éon, who represented Louis XV in the Russian and English courts in the eighteenth century. A member of the French king’s secret network of spies, Beaumont’s sex was a source of speculation for decades; an autopsy ultimately confirmed that Beaumont was biologically male. Despite diplomatic and military successes, Beaumont died poverty-stricken, shunned by his old colleagues and unwelcome in the French court.
All very sexy stuff, narratively speaking.
Eonnagata, unfortunately, is a bit less so.
It’s compelling and highly accomplished, a hybrid of forms that tells a fascinating story in an appropriately innovative way. The performance piece is a collaboration between three accomplished artists: theatrical master Lepage, dancer Sylvie Guillem, and choreographer Russell Maliphant, who created the piece and are its sole performers. They have put tremendous thought into the staging of Beaumont’s story, and they have managed to create an episodic, fragmented narrative that evokes the disjointedness of living a life as dislocated as he did.
In addition to the three principals, lighting designer Michael Hulls did brilliant work, adding nuance and tremendous depth to the spare stage. The late Alexander McQueen designed the costumes; they too add layers of meaning and undeniable beauty. (It’s a rare mind that can conceive of throwing a net over a character and have them climb up into it so it becomes a skirt, a stiff crinoline that is both a cage and a chosen identity.) Guillem’s lines are lovely, and the central dance sequences were riveting. One in particular was stunning, during which the performers climbed through and over and across a table that, stood on its side, was revealed to have a mirror for its top—reflecting the performers’ movements while encapsulating ideas of identity, representation, and duality.
But though this made for a captivating performance, Eonnagata is somehow a little bloodless, too much head and too little gut. We wished for more showing and less telling: too many narrative asides told Beaumont’s story in a literal play-by-play, rather than allowing events—not to mention emotions—to flow from the character and the action on stage directly. At times the piece felt overly mannered, a little too attached to its own conventions to allow Beaumont to come fully to life.
Eonnagata is one of those rare pieces that stays with you—there’s a lot to mull over and a lot of meaning to tease out. It’s certainly worth seeing, and it’ll certainly change how we experience other performance pieces in future. It’s just that Eonnagata left us caring more about the show—its techniques and approaches and craftsmanship—than it did about the character it portrayed.
The second and final performance of Eonnagata is tonight at the Sony Centre.