SIMON DUFF: A samurai warrior clad in European armour appears on stage, slowly unveiled from a large tent like structure. The isolated soldier commences calculated fencing and stabbing swordsmanship. Sound effects of wind, the noise of the sword slashing through the air mix with a subtle drifting bass drone, pulse around the theatre. Brilliant white strobe lighting leads the scene. The warrior, seemingly in perfect harmony with his surroundings. Robert Le Page as the Chevalier d'Éon has arrived.
Eonnagata tells the story of the Chevalier d'Éon, Charles de Beaumont - diplomat, writer, swordsman and a member of the King's Secret, a network of spies under the control of Louis XV in eighteenth century
France. Beyond the romance and colour of his life, what stands out is his extraordinary audacity. Éon was possibly the first spy to use cross-dressing in the pursuit of his duties. This earned him a variety of enemies, including Louis XVI, who forced him to wear a dress all the time. Ultimately, people no longer knew whether he was a man or a woman. Until the day he died, his true gender was a source of constant speculation, even provoking public bets in the late 18th century.
The remarkable Sadler's Wells production brought together internationally acclaimed dancer Sylvie Guillem, a celebrated rebel of classical ballet who converted to contemporary dance, world-renowned theatre-maker Robert Le Page, whose unusual work transcends many boundaries, especially through his use of new technologies, and
award-winning choreographer Russell Maliphant, often described as the most important British choreographer of his generation. With an evocative sound design and music by Jean-Sébastian Côté who has worked
for Ex Machina for the last fifteen years and lighting by Michael Hulls, the piece was never less than sublime. Slick direction and seamless transformations ensured a dream-like progression of images. Characters rose and vanished with almost magical sleight-of-hand.
Guillem, Le Page and Maliphant are the cast, each depicting a side of Eon’s character. Guillem plays the eductive, sensitive female role, Maliphant the heart thrusting warrior with Le Page seemingly the glue between the two. The roles are constantly shifting and evolving. As the story unfolds each side seems to become stronger and a competition ensues. Each scene a magnificent shifting transformation of realities, realized through, mirrors tables swords and costumes.
The nonconformism of Charles de Beaumont quickly struck a chord with the creators of Eonnagata, forcing them to ask some interesting questions. What if de Beaumont was both man and woman? Midway between theatre and dance, Eonnagata pits the fan against the sword, the courtesan against the swordsman. Also exploring the embodying of one sex by the other in what is more an investigation of gender than of sexuality. The work draws on Onnagata, a Kabuki theatre technique that enables actors to represent women in a highly stylized fashion,
shedding new light on the Chevalier d’Éon and revealing that his enigma is perhaps the mystery of human identity itself.
The play ends with the gradual decline of Eon, penniless and ignored by a state he has done so much for. The final scene depicts his autopsy; the mystery of his gender unresolved. Eonnagata sees Robert Le Page and Ex-Machina at their finest in many years; a celebration of the power of language and identity fused with light, music and sound. Minimal, exotic, technologically powerful; this is surrealist theatre at it's poetic best.
Photograph by Eric Labbé
Sadler's Wells Theatre London