THEATRE

The grand illusionist

John Bemrose April 25 1994
THEATRE

The grand illusionist

John Bemrose April 25 1994

The grand illusionist

THEATRE

JOHN BEMROSE

If there is something in theatre that Robert Lepage cannot do, no one has yet discovered it.

The soft-spoken 36-year-old from Quebec City has written, directed and acted in several of his own plays, including The Dragon’s Trilogy (1985) and Tectonic Plates (1989), which he has staged to international acclaim with his own company, Théâtre Repère. In 1992, he created a wildly successful A Midsummer Night’s Dream for The Royal National Theatre in London, and last year he directed the darkly atmospheric Canadian Opera Company production of Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartok. He has even attracted the notice of Hollywood actor AÍ Pacino, who wanted Lepage to direct him in anything by Shakespeare. But as much as Lepage’s talents are on display in such projects, nothing captures the essence of his genius better than his one-man shows. For it is in such tour de force productions as Vinci, his 1986 meditation on the Renaissance master, and Needles and Opium, which he recently brought to Toronto for its Canadian Englishlanguage première, that he reveals himself most tellingly.

Robert Lepage dazzles with an astonishing tour de force

NEEDLES AND OPIUM

Written, directed and performed by Robert Lepage

The secret of Lepage’s solo shows is their particular quality of intimacy.

His use of a quiet, almost fragile minimalism engages the imagination and trust of the audience. When he employs technical props on stage—in Needles and Opium he is frequently suspended from wires—he never seeks to hide the means by which he plays his tricks. As well, he never hurries, never raises his voice to a theatrical loudness. As a result, Lepage seems to be conveying something ordinary and genuine—which is both true and not true. For, in his apparently offhand way, he is creating some of the most surprising illusions ever seen in live performance.

Needles and Opium plays with one of his favorite themes: the loneliness and anguish of the individual set against the great cultural achievements of the past. The show takes place in two years, 1949 and 1989. The 1949 scenes are based on one of those historical

coincidences that Lepage loves: that year, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis left New York City to visit Paris, while French poet and film-maker Jean Cocteau left Paris for New York. Lepage impersonates both those men, as well as the show’s third protagonist, a young Québécois actor called Robert, who arrives to work in Paris in 1989. Robert’s lover has recently rejected him, and he spends restless nights suffering the pangs of unrequited love. Meanwhile, Davis and Cocteau endure their own hell as drug addicts and artistic renegades.

Much of the show is set against the melancholy backdrop of Davis’s wailing horn. But it is the spirit of the surrealist Cocteau that dominates the visual proceedings. In New York, this self-declared “last free man” is seen seated in mid-air while he floats up the face of an

apartment building—an illusion created by playing a film of the building on the screen behind Lepage. Then, suddenly, the film is reversed, and Lepage, turning head-over-heels in his harness, seems to take an endless plunge towards the sidewalk. The effect is both thrilling and unnerving: a beautiful illustration of the precariousness of life, its random tendency to toss people to both heights and depths. Indeed, Lepage constantly flirts with images of vertigo and descent, like the vortex that sucks in Robert when he has a nervous breakdown.

Often, Lepage will allow an image or sound to persist past the point where it is merely novel or entertaining. The technique risks boredom, but it can also force the viewer to absorb a scene at a deeper level. In his hotel room, Robert is disturbed by the sounds of a couple making love next door. As the woman’s cries go on—and on and on—they become comical. But they also develop an almost demonic undertone, as if the voice belonged to an invisible harpy mocking Robert’s distress.

Restraint is equally a part of Impages repertoire. In his use of the white screen, he gradually reveals its amazing properties. At first it seems merely a surface for the projection of images (at one point, it conveys an entire seduction scene between Davis and French singer Juliette Greco by following the movements of their silhouetted hands). But then Lepage begins to use the screen more robustly, pressing at it with his feet and body until it stretches like pizza dough.

Rarely has so much dramatic

tension been intentionally created around the question of a prop’s durability.

The show does have its low points. Some of the images are banal, and Lepage sometimes indulges in philosophical pretension. And while Robert’s anguish is convincingly portrayed, the crucial scene in which he is lured back from the edge of suicide by Miles Davis—who offers him his trumpet—does not work. The idea of redemption through art is here, but there is no emotional substance. As a result, Needles and Opium lacks a catharsis. It is like enjoying 90 minutes of voluptuous lovemaking without attaining climax. Yet the show has offered so much that, ultimately, it is the afterglow of its images that persists in the mind.