New Internationalist

Sharp Focus on Robert Lepage

Issue 345

Louise Gray celebrates the strange craft of a maestro of film, theatre — and duality.

Cylla Von Tiedemann
Robert Lepage combines mesmerizing technology and querulous poignancy. Cylla Von Tiedemann

In Possible Worlds (2001), the first English-language film from Quebecois director Robert Lepage, there is a moment when a scientist tells the protagonist, George, that he intends to kill him ‘in all possible worlds’. It is a scene to ponder. If George can be killed in all possible worlds then so too can he love and be loved. And, sure enough, in a series of encounters in a myriad of alternative existences, we see George (Tom McCamus) loving his wife Joyce (Tilda Swinton). Now this might seem to be hinting at the possibility of a unified man, but it does so by underlining an essential dualism. In this particular film duality is experienced as something that separates body and brain. But duality is a process that runs throughout Lepage’s theatre and film work. Born in Quebec City in 1957, he spent his childhood first in Anglophone Canada then in French-speaking Quebec. It was an upbringing he was to describe as ‘a metaphor for Canada’, and it’s this split that appears time and again. You see it in the very title of Tectonic Plates (1988) or the agile exploration of Chinese culture in The Dragons’ Trilogy (1985). In his play The Far Side of the Moon (2000) it appears with greater stagecraft and subtlety than ever before.

Written following the death of his mother, The Far Side of the Moon is an attempt of two brothers to confront the emotional freefall of people who find themselves without that buffer zone between themselves and their own deaths, their parents. (Are any of us ever old enough to become orphans?) But this one-person show is also acutely about us, the audience. Its elegantly simple staging begins by revolving a giant rectangular mirror — one that stretches the width of the stage — to face the audience. The house-lights are up: Lepage looks at us; the audience watch themselves watching him. It’s an uncanny introduction to the theme of narcissism, of that separation we all experience from our own images, that shoots through the play.

But the most arresting image of the piece is its central one: a portal that functions as a washing-machine door, the window of a space-ship and a hospital CAT scanner. Lepage’s theatrical sleight-of-hand allows him to shift the action dramatically from place to place and time to time. With deft strokes (and no little humour), Lepage switches characters with alacrity. Using as his over-arching theme the story of the American-Soviet race for the moon (something he was fascinated with as a boy), he finds in it one gigantic metaphor for human existence.

Theatre is no stranger to playwrights or directors ready to engage with the big questions about what makes us who we are. But it is perhaps Lepage’s readiness to approach them with such a touching self-consciousness that has struck a chord in his audiences around the world. As a director he has been quick to embrace what technology can offer — The Far Side makes mesmerizing use of video projections and an original soundtrack from Laurie Anderson. But he never abandons simplicity. A wordless gesture in a Lepage production can signify as great an isolation as an entire scene from Beckett. Language becomes something larger than the linguistic battlefield that it certainly is in Canada; in its suspension it unites us all.

The Far Side’s final image is audacious. Lying on the floor, Lepage seems to writhe in slow motion; it’s not so much a physical agony as an existential one. But the mirror now gives us a very different picture. It seems as if he is space-walking. Is it an act of isolation or of freedom? Lepage leaves it to us to decide, but the sequence, breathtakingly long at ten minutes and as silent as outer space, is a beautiful one, as strange and as querulously poignant as all the man’s work.

Louise Gray

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