My Canada, 90/150: The long shadow of Robert Lepage

After seeing Robert Lepage’s 887 recently with my partner, I asked the usual post-show question. So, what did you think?

It’s Lepage,” he said. “It doesn’t compare to anything else.”

Robert Lepage’s catalogue of theatrical, film, directorial, and creative achievements is stunning. He has become known as the master of grand spectacle, whether animating opera, Cirque du Soleil, rock concert tours, or unique multimedia installations such as 2008’s “The Image Mill”, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Quebec City.

With 887, he returns to the stage as an actor to tell an intensely personal story, a look at a year in his childhood life at 887 Murray Avenue in Quebec City. Intertwined with the drama of his family and their neighbours in their eight-plex apartment is the unfolding story of the political world of Quebec in 1969 and 1970. And that is framed by another story: today’s Robert Lepage, talking directly to his theatre audience, about how he’s finding it hard memorize a poem, Michèle Lalonde’s “Speak White, for an upcoming event where he has agreed to recite it.

Lepage, when he’s in a personal, sharing mood with his audience, comes across as utterly charming and self-deprecating. He does so in this play, and did so a few years earlier when, in 2014, he was the featured speaker at the LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium,  “a national event that explores citizenship, belonging and the public good with leading Canadian and international thinkers,” now run under the auspices of the Institute of Canadian Citizenship, the ongoing project of Adrienne Clarkson, Canada’s 26th Governor General. I heard this lecture in person; if you find yourself with a spare hour, you can view it it on YouTube. Lepage’s section, after introductions, begins at 21 minutes, 50 seconds.

But charming Lepage has shadows, and depths, which is where the power of his art arises. His personal struggles with depression and coping with alopecia, an auto-immune disease that caused him to lose all his hair as a youth, have been well documented.

He has never been one to colour within the lines. My first encounter of him was at what former Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian refers to as Lepage’s “legendary” 1992 production of Macbeth at the Hart House Theatre, University of Toronto. While shortly after this Lepage would go on to direct a lauded A Midsummer’s Night Dream in London, this student-cast production in Toronto was his first kick at English-language Shakespeare and isn’t often mentioned in summaries of his work. Lepage did a “reverse Macbeth”: women were cast as men, and men as women (a practical conceit when dealing with university drama clubs, who tend to be strong on women while Shakespeare’s tragedies are dominated by male characters). I distinctly remember the three witches entering suspended upside down, bat-like, lit from below by an intense red light. That moment, and the overall interpretation, was eerie and disturbing.

In 1994, Lepage founded Ex Machina, “a multidisciplinary company bringing together actors, writers, set designers, technicians, opera singers, puppeteers, computer graphic designers, video artists, contortionists and musicians.

“Ex Machina’s creative team believes that the performing arts — dance, opera, music — should be mixed with recorded arts — filmmaking, video art and multimedia. That there must be meetings between scientists and playwrights, between set painters and architects, and between artists from Québec and the rest of the world.”

Lepage, whether on his own or as leader of the Ex Machina collective, has re-imagined opera, dance, and theatre. The National Ballet of Canada has announced a collaboration for 2018. I’ve seen but a small sampling: The Andersen Project, Needles and Opium, Playing Cards: Spades. While using projections as part of theatre performance now is commonplace, Lepage and this team take this to a new level, having onstage actors inhabit video images of scenes that can morph to a new setting in an instant.

90 Lepage 2
From Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium, where a cityscape and clouds, one of dozens of scenes, are created by projections on a rotating set cube. Photo: Nicola Frank Vachon

Lepage premières many of his theatre creations but then passes acting duties to other performers when he moves to other projects. 887 reminds us of just how powerful a presence Lepage is on stage.

After all the joking around about how he can’t possibly memorize the impossible “Speak White” poem, the show climaxes with him delivering a searing rendition of the verse, which is an angry ode against how Québec francophones were forced to “Speak White” (speak English), lashing Québécois oppression to a black slavery narrative. In another part of the play, he recalls being a boy whose newspaper delivery bag was searched by police during the tense “October Crisis” in 1970 in Quebec, when the separatist Front de Libération du Québec launched violent protests, including kidnapping two officials. You won’t find bombs in my bag, Lepage says, the man remembering the boy who may live within him, still. “The bombs are in my heart.”

Main photo: Robert Lepage in 887. Photo by Erick Labbé.

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