Theatrical Superstar

A Quebec genius is known universally but seen sparsely in English Canada.

Robert Lepage is the Wayne Gretzky of Canadian theatre, as dazzling and prolific on the stage as Gretzky was on ice, with name recognition anywhere in the world his game is played. Unlike the other Great One, Lepage plays multiple positions: writer, director, designer, actor. His arenas range from theatre to opera to circus. His moves are many and varied. He shoots, he scores.

Almost alone in Canadian performing arts, Lepage has achieved international superstar status while remaining firmly identified as Canadian. In the 1990s, as he directed Shakespeare in London and Strindberg in Stockholm, as his own plays travelled to New York, Tokyo and Salzburg, Lepage chose to root his company, Ex Machina, in his hometown, Quebec City, building an elaborate research lab and production centre there from which all his new work emerges.

Yet much of that work remains elusive for Canadians outside Quebec. The creator tightly controls his creations. No one gets to produce Lepage except Ex Machina, unless they are commissioners such as London’s National Theatre (his acclaimed Midsummer Night’s Dream) or New York’s Metropolitan Opera (his extravagant Ring Cycle). His shows demand complex technology that only certain facilities can provide. Lepage does not franchise his work; only one production exists at a time. Most of his shows open in Quebec City, then play Montreal and a few other cities around the world. If yours is not one of them, tough luck. I have seen only six Lepage productions in three decades in Vancouver. Most have never appeared here.

Even scripts are hard to find. Only a few of his plays (Polygraph, The Seven Streams of the River Ota, The Blue Dragon) have been published in English, a handful more in French. Why? The fluid nature of the work, always in-progress, rarely results in a final, definitive text. Lepage constantly revises, adding, cutting, shuffling characters and scenes from one mounting to the next. His productions of The Dragons’ Trilogy range from 90 minutes to six hours. And his intensely visual, physical theatricality can be only approximated on the printed page or the screen. You can see Lepage’s films, watch his stage work on YouTube. But you have to experience his work live to fully appreciate the magic.

Ludovic Fouquet’s The Visual Laboratory of Robert Lepage aims to explain the magic. A francophone theatre artist and academic, Fouquet has written a dense analysis of Lepage’s selected stage work, skimming over the Shakespeare and Cirque du Soleil and largely omitting the films. Originally published in 2005 as Robert Lepage, l’horizon en images, the book has been translated into English by Rhonda Mullins for Talonbooks, illustrated with 80 large, helpful, though sometimes fuzzy black-and-white photos, and updated by Fouquet in an epilogue discussing Lepage’s theatre and opera since 2005.

Fouquet argues that Lepage conjoins certain pre-technological archetypes—puppet theatre, box and cube, shadow and quarry—with technology to develop his unique physical designs and theatrical iconography. “Lepage demands that theatre speaks a contemporary language,” he writes, “and above all that language must be visual.” Although privileging the visual, Fouquet employs a sonic metaphor to structure the second part of the book, focusing on what he calls the six technological “echoes” (“light, photography, cinema or film, video, virtual environments, and sound”) that Lepage uses to produce “images” through interaction with audience memory. Ironically, the chapter on sound is one of Fouquet’s strongest. Part three describes Lepage’s theatrical method: how he moves from concept through rehearsal and revision to performance, building shows collectively in concert with other actors, designers, technicians and dramaturges. This section also examines Lepage’s exploration of interculturalism, Orientalism and the baroque.

At his best Fouquet offers vivid glimpses of Lepage’s theatrical brilliance: the sliding shoji screens and two-way mirrors he uses to maximize the versatility of the Japanese house set in The Seven Streams of the River Ota; his deployment of “the cinematic gaze” in the one-man Elsinore that allows him to act both Hamlet and Claudius in the same scene; a terrific sequence in The Far Side of the Moon, a solo show about two Quebec brothers and the Russian-American space race. One of the brothers dumps his laundry into a washing machine, leans his head inside the door and, through the trompe l’oeil of video projection, miraculously becomes an astronaut leaving his capsule and floating in space.

This is one of those wow! moments that makes watching live Lepage so special. But it also has thematic significance in a play about the power of human imagination to transform the ordinary stuff of everyday life into cosmic poetry. Fouquet’s own imagination, though, remains earthbound. His technocratic descriptions explain how Lepage creates particular effects but rarely why, or how they might affect an audience: “video, like a space of ‘multiple mirrors,’ divides up space to present simultaneously different facets of the same reality.” This is the mundane best he can make of this extraordinary scene. Earlier he offers, “video is just a means, whereas cinema and photography are used for deeper reasons,” but he never explains what those reasons might be. He refers to the video camera’s “ubiquity of the gaze,” but fails to relate it to Lepage’s concern with surveillance in plays such as Elsinore and operas such as 1984.

The problem of audience also emerges in these segments. Fouquet provides few plot summaries or contexts; most of his lengthy descriptive analyses assume specific knowledge of the plays. Writing in French, he ostensibly targets a Québécois audience more likely to be familiar with the material than readers who have had less direct exposure to Lepage on stage, who may find it hard to visualize what is being deconstructed in such detail. Perhaps realizing this himself, Fouquet changes his style and tone in the epilogue written for this English edition, contextualizing the recent work, making it more lucid and easily accessible.

In the process he also distances himself from the rhetorical excess and murky abstraction of passages earlier in the book where he attempts to interpret, not just describe, what Lepage does. “We would see that there too the shift is possible,” Fouquet writes, “and that, standing before the image, we can quickly be inside it, thanks to an opening that could no doubt be the very fold of this original dialectic between the box and the quarry. This fold is not only a transition but a break, a break like a dialectical space, like the only possibility of expression of this dialectic, like an ambiguous space that is at once volume, surface, depth, and threshold.” These corners of the visual laboratory need better illumination.

This is a book for advanced students of Lepage, scenographers eager to know how his theatrical tricks are done and completists wanting to own everything written about him. Otherwise, read Ex Machina: Creating for the Stage, a slim but comprehensive volume by Patrick Caux and Bernard Gilbert with great colour photos that make the Lepage experience accessible in as much of its glory as may be possible in print.