The Seven Streams of the River Ota

In 1996, Robert Lepage's initial production of The Seven Streams was far from critic-pleasing. Though reviews were mixed, for the majority, the combination of fluffed lines, allusive pretension and the whole-day-sapping seven hour run time (no breaking it into parts one and two here), was enough to get backs up and star ratings down. When Lepage said afterwards that his art is "always in rehearsal stage", it didn't help.

You cannot miss this. You HAVE to get yourself a ticket RIGHT NOW.

Outside of drama students – many of whom will have studied Lepage as being an important practitioner of our time with his dreamily imagistic style juxtaposing the works of Brook, Brecht or Artaud – seeing these Google search results is unlikely to have increased ticket demand for this return performance (to Lepage's point, obviously now updated through further cast devising) now at The National's Lyttleton Theatre. As it spans a period of 50 years and has a throughline of the development of Japanese culture since the bombing of Hiroshima, it is unlikely to tick the box of providing a night of escapism either.

The good news in all this is that at the time of writing, (15th March), there are still tickets remaining for the final three performances. (I feel I should point out that the reason there are so few performances left is nothing to do with my tardiness of writing (this time!). There are only nine shows in the London run. To be fair though that is the same stage time as a six week run of a 90-minute play). Of course, whether all these happen depends when, and how high, Donny tells Bobo to jump to order and close down the West End. So read on and move sharp.

If you count yourself as a fan of the theatre... If you've only ever seen something on stage that used to be a film or TV show... If you think you can enjoy a show without already knowing the soundtrack and/or fancying the starring YouTube Vlogger... and if you can spare a whole day...

You cannot miss this. You HAVE to get yourself a ticket RIGHT NOW.

I believe this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is unlikely to be seen again in this country. It is a mind-blowing phenomenon of theatre.

It is spellbindingly magical. If it weren't an oxymoron to use the word about the not literal notion of magic, it would be so as, at times, sets, actors and worlds appear and disappear before your eyes. At one point, multiple cast members seem to be the same character at the same time in the same place as they melt into the same costume, without us seeing it happen. At another, a silhouette spray paints on a glass sheet which morphs into an American fighter plane that seems to be flying just above us.

It is simplistically beautiful; the beauty exemplified by how basic its holding structure appears to be. The compact prefab-like straw building takes little of the Lyttleton's downstage space and is as basic as next door's set for The Visit is grand. But It transforms effortlessly from the opening episode's 1955 Hiroshima home where a family are coming to terms with the bomb's impact - and the matriarch becomes entwined with an American GI – through the 60s, to a 70s American apartment block, an 80s Amsterdam café bar, right up to 1999. Never changing and yet completely changing.

It is satisfyingly exhilarating; moving and educative, without ever being mawkish or didactic. Hiroshima is just the start of the big themes it covers, and though the throughline is always there, it never feels a lesson. Lives are also touched by issues as big as assisted suicide during the AIDS crisis and the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Holocaust. But again, it's handled in such an understated way to be moving, not depressing. And it is entertaining. There is not much time when there aren't laugh out loud funny moments to be had.

The concern of the seven hours ahead is unnecessary. Each of the 'Seven Streams' (it's a metaphor) works as a self-contained chapter with a natural arc that completes without draining you. Some characters do remain and develop throughout, but it's not linear. This isn't about one, or even all of them.

If you missed one of the 'acts', you would miss out on the theatrical gifts it has to bestow upon you, but as far as the plot goes, you wouldn't struggle to catch up. There isn't a narrative where the clues to the denouement are cleverly hidden throughout. Because of this, and the natural breaks in between them, you're suddenly not seeing a seven-hour play, but going back and forth into seven short plays, making it manageable enough for the smallest attention span and the hardest buttocks.

If you do take my advice and go, then your experience of theatre will be richer for it. I guarantee that. But I am aware that I am breaking the Critics' Code here. The entirety of the seven hours is not without flaw. There are a couple of moments where the understated nature of the performance and the downplayed tone – often leading to scene backgrounds being played sotto voce – can be a little soporific. And there's possibly a payoff in needing to find a full cast of performers who are fluently multi-lingual, 100% believable with improvised dialogue and as strong in acting as they are in... well, for example... I don't like to single anyone out... but for instance, opera singing. (She's the weak link as an actor!)

On balance though I have decided to risk Critic Prison and go with five stars as it just wouldn't be fitting to see this as anything less than perfection. It’s as if the show was a million pounds I have been given in cash. If a couple of crumpled fivers tempered my memory, it says more about me than it does about the riches offered.

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

National Theatre

The Normal Heart

★★★
Arts Theatre

Oleanna

★★
Olivier Theatre

Under Milk Wood

★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

The Seven Streams of the River Ota

★★★★★
National Theatre Olivier

The Visit

★★★
National Theatre - Olivier

My Brilliant Friend

★★

Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this review has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £600,000 to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now

Performances

Location

The Blurb

First staged at the National Theatre in 1996, Robert Lepage’s masterpiece returns to London for just nine performances. Presented as part of a world tour, this new staging marks 75 years since the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima.

Tracing survivors and their descendants across five decades, this giant theatrical journey through time and space explores the way in which a few kilograms of uranium falling on Japan changed the course of human history.

Most Popular See More

Matilda the Musical

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

The Mousetrap

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Dear Evan Hansen

From £30.00

More Info

Find Tickets

The Book of Mormon

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

The Phantom of the Opera

From £27.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Pretty Woman: The Musical

From £18.00

More Info

Find Tickets