There is some irony that Canadian Stage are bringing back Robert Lepage’s 887, both because it’s a powerful piece of theatre that you must see if at all possible, but also as an exploration of memory. Throughout the work Lepage is asking himself what he can remember, what anyone can remember.
And then there are the more recent events for Lepage. They say that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. I wonder if Robert Lepage believes it, after the controversies of 2018, his annus horribilis.
If people are talking about you it’s supposed to be a good thing, right?
- In the summer it was SLAV, a show including white people singing the songs of black slaves. After protests it was cancelled amid charges of cultural appropriation.
- In December it was Kanata, a show scheduled for Paris about the settlement of Canada. After protests from the Indigenous community it was cancelled when the backers backed out.
And now in the spring of 2019, Lepage’s Ring des Nibelungen is being revived at the Metropolitan Opera, with some phenomenally negative reviews. They only seem to have positive words for the singers:
- Anne Midgette (Washington Post): “The Met Opera’s high-tech ‘Ring’ was a flop. Can a soprano change that at its revival?”
- James Jorden (NY Observer) “On Stage and Off, the Met’s ‘Das Rheingold’ Tells a Story of Doom From the Start“
- Anthony Tommasini (NY Times): “The Met’s ‘Ring’ Stops Creaking, but Still Doesn’t Work”
“But for me, the noises and the glitches were never the real problem with this production. My main issue was that Mr. Lepage seemed to have scant interpretive insight into a work that, since its 1876 premiere, has been seized upon by generation after generation as an allegory about roiling issues of the time: a Marxist narrative of class struggle; a cautionary tale about the corrupting influence of power; a warning about environmental destruction; an absurdist reflection of nihilistic leadership.”
I wrote about this production (really four productions, given that the style varies from one opera to the next) at great length as each of the operas appeared, both as high-definition broadcasts and from attending two of the four operas in the house. From the intensity of my enjoyment my American friends might think I drank some sort of kool-ade, perhaps because I’m Canadian. Yet my scholar friends speak the name “Robert Lepage” with a kind of reverence that might puzzle Americans who only know him from his work with Cirque du soleil or the Metropolitan Opera. Lepage is taken seriously in Canada.
This is from the rave review I wrote about 887 back in April 2017:
887 is a play that is at once, a meditation on memory, an auto-biographical testimonial by Robert Lepage himself, a funny two hours, and a highly political study of recent history. Several times I thought I saw the kernel, the main well-spring of Lepage’s inspiration: and yet so thoroughly are the different threads sewn together that I can’t really say for certain.
- There’s the poem “Speak White” by Québecoise Michelle Lalonde, a text with which we’re teased throughout as Lepage shares the challenge trying to memorize the poem (and we wonder just how much of it he will eventually retain), which he has been invited to read at an event. As we shall discover, the poem is like the cri de coeur of an underclass seeking equality. This year especially the poem is must reading for any Canadian.
- There’s the Québec motto inscribed on their license plates, namely “je me souviens”, or I remember. But what do we –or does Lepage—actually remember?
- I couldn’t help thinking that at one time separatism was such a threat to confederation that every day we heard something in the news, about possible referenda, about the polling numbers for the Parti Québecois. As Lepage gives us his one-man show, I felt the subtext could have been that collective memory lapse, as the once powerful and threatening movement seems to have faded away to nothing.
- And memory is personal for Lepage. The set is ostensibly a model of his childhood apartment home, but in a real sense it’s a model of himself, of his brain and his influences (and while this thought may seem wacky or strange to say, at one point Lepage made it literally so, allowing the diagram of the apartment to morph into cerebral hemispheres, complete with a bit of explanation about what the different mental apartments might be good for).
- When he briefly alluded to his grandmother and her struggles with dementia, I wondered if I was the only one in the place suddenly uncontrollably crying –stifling sobs actually—in the way we were suddenly at a bedside. It’s still killing me hours later that the ambiguity of what we were seeing and discussing let the association come up. I thought I heard someone else audibly crying too at that moment. Mercifully we segued to a childhood scene of theatrics, the study of memory both enacted and analyzed.
- And there’s probably more. Lepage joked about the whole process of memorizing, which may have been a personal subtext for the show.
I want to recall what I said about 887 as I think about what Lepage chose to do with Wagner’s Ring cycle. There is again a kind of literalness in the design concept, a concrete focus that is easy to underestimate. I like simplicity especially when it works.
- In Damnation de Faust, Marguérite sings of the flaming ardor of her love: and her CGI projected image seems to catch fire on the big screen behind her onstage.
- For much of the Ring cycle we are seeing the events exactly as specified in the score, and sometimes for the first time in decades. In Das Rheingold we see the Rhine-maidens swimming in the river (usually impossible to do), in Götterdämmerung when Siegfried travels on the river with his horse, we actually have a horse signified, at least in a puppet version.
- In 887 we see a model of Lepage’s childhood home (the title refers to his street address) as he contemplates his/our past. (AND as I wrote: “The set is ostensibly a model of his childhood apartment home, but in a real sense it’s a model of himself, of his brain and his influences (and while this thought may seem wacky or strange to say, at one point Lepage made it literally so, allowing the diagram of the apartment to morph into cerebral hemispheres, complete with a bit of explanation about what the different mental apartments might be good for).“
Lepage will be back to remind us what he can do, as he performs 887, an Ex Machina Production May 3-12 at the Bluma Appel Theatre.