Have you seen Robert Lepage’s 887?
This show’s been all over the world. I missed the first Toronto incarnation in 2015 but saw it & raved about it last time, brought to Toronto via Canadian Stage (one of the co-producers) in April 2017.
Two years later it’s back, and shouldn’t be missed. I should be saying “he’s back”, “he shouldn’t be missed” because it’s over two hours of a one-man show, a total tour de force. If you are an actor see it to be reminded of what an actor can do, see it and be prepared to be daunted, impressed but intimidated.
That’s the joke, I suppose, and it’s grown in the telling.
Lepage begins with the challenges of memorizing a poem. Ha-ha, he can’t manage, he can’t remember: all the while, speaking and delivering and acting this profound exploration that goes on for two hours plus. And so as we may wonder, will he ever learn that poem? he segues to bigger questions of memory & history implicit in the poem he is to learn, namely Michèlle Lalonde’s Speak White.
Is it the same as last time? Not possible. Lepage has changed and so have I. So have we all. The country is changing, morphing everything in the process. The experience seeing it the first time of course was special. But it’s a live performance, totally different this time out.
I remember Lepage seeming calmly magisterial last time, solid and confident throughout. Perhaps I’m projecting, but I think he’s been through a great deal this year. Instead I saw a very relaxed off the cuff kind of performance this time out: that is until we get to the end. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that eventually Lepage does deliver the poem.
But where he made it a kind of logical conclusion previously, a calm resolution to the performance, this time—at least tonight—was unexpectedly passionate. The energy Lepage brought to the two-plus hours of this piece are already impressive. But in the last part of the show he kicks it up another notch. There’s an element that might be fury or anger or terror, a desperation. He is raging against the dying of the light, where the light might be the dying aspirations of the Parti Québecois and its nationalist dream, a generation of revolutionaries, greying, losing their mojo or simply irrelevant, forgotten by an apathetic generation. Where that dream seemed to be quietly fading in 2017, held up by Lepage like an old slide for us to see illuminated, tonight it was more like a distant memory, like an unconscious patient on a table needing to be resuscitated: by Lepage’s wild energy. I wonder what Lalonde would think of Lepage’s urgent pained delivery tonight? But he built inexorably to that climax, mindful rather than uncontrolled.
It’s an astonishing display of virtuosity that I did not expect, even having seen the show before.
Where the poem was a perfect little bit of lace or nice icing on a cake at the end of his meditation last time out, THIS TIME? he has reckless moments, jazzy and energized, knocking it out of the park, to finish the show at peak energy. I wonder if he can replicate this, yet of course I have no doubts at all. This was planned as masterfully as anything Wagner would have composed (remembering that above all Wagner was a master-manipulator).
I can’t get over Lepage’s theatrical vocabulary on this occasion. I don’t think there are any aerials, nobody hanging from a wire as we saw in his Ring cycle operas, in Damnation de Faust or the Tempest.
But I think he’s come at the story-telling in a different way to do many of the same things as before.
We’ve seen the shadow – puppets before, as in the Nightingale & other stories, that we saw from the Canadian Opera Company. We’ve seen models and puppets standing in for humans in the Ring operas.
Yet it was very different on this occasion.
I was reminded of a few obsessive model-building movie-makers:
• Terry Gilliam
• Tim Burton
• Wes Anderson
It’s miraculous to see the same kind of micro- and macro-worlds in live theatre that Burton or Anderson have built & filmed. Lepage brings high-res cameras in close for amazing close-ups, that are bizarrely real at the same time that they scream out to us that they’re artificial and can’t possibly be real.
What’s this about? A need for control? A way to enact a kind of vulnerability? Lepage is revisiting some remarkable moments in our history, such as Charles de Gaulle’s visit to Québec, or the FLQ kidnappings & murder of Pierre Laporte.
I’ve been trying to understand a mystery lately, re-watching Lepage’s 4 Ring operas on video. There are moments that I keep watching over and over, mesmerized. I have this word I want to use that seems apt, that the images work so well as to make the meaning immanent, manifest and completely transparent. I think it’s easy to underestimate Lepage, because he’s making something so simple & concrete as to show us a physical model of an apartment building, of a parade with a crowd. But it’s not that the models are somehow going to explain, so much as they make it possible for Lepage to enact the key moments, to show us the experience from the past even though it seems to be happening again, in miniature. It’s totally surreal, totally crazy on the literal level. But at another level we’re seeing Lepage live this, that his movable apartment building is like a model of himself, a deconstruction of his childhood and his culture. He is in a real sense drilling down into himself and lo & behold, there’s always something there.
It’s breath-taking in its simplicity, astonishingly powerful. We get to have it both ways, to be on the inside experiencing it while also being alien and on the outside, critiquing.
I have been obsessively watching the Ring videos over the past few days, to see Lepage’s work again. I think people over-think this, mistaking it for something else as they demand it do what other productions & what other designs have done. That’s a fallacy I think. When Lepage is standing beside that apartment house or the parade it’s a mistake to see that as a set. They’re actually both less & more. In a sense they are like characters or installations, models of the self, or models of the culture. Lepage doesn’t quite become part of the set, but his phenomenal feat of over two-hours of intense delivery makes him both the subject & the object, the matter at hand and the means to explore that matter.
Nevermind that big machine in the Met Ring cycle. Lepage himself is a superb machine.
If you are old enough to remember the 70s let alone the 60s and 50s, you must see this show, a meditation on Canadian history & identity, as well as a profound investigation of memory & cognition. 887 continues at the Bluma Appel Theatre until May 12th.
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