Sunday, May 6, 2007


Robert Lepage in The Andersen Project at the Barbican, London
Photo: Tristram Kenton

I consider it a grievous fault in my theatregoing history that it was only yesterday whenI first witnessed a production by and starring Quebec's Robert Lepage. This world-renowned auteur director/actor has a reputation that can only be appreciated by reading in the program for this show that it is a co-production between over 20 different international companies and has been performed in Tokyo, London, Sydney and Copenhagen, among others, to date. Such is the rarefied life of a theatrical superstar... and a substantially high level of expectation to build in any audience. I came away from this 2 hour intermission-free show a firm convert to Lepage's vision of theatre, despite my generalized misgivings about one-man plays and highly-technologized theatre productions. Lepage overcomes these critical biases in the simplest of ways...he tells a good story that is very well-written and beautifully performed.

Lepage was commissioned by the Government of Denmark to create a piece to mark the bicentennial of Hans Christian Andersen's birth. What emerged in Lepage's research and development (with a large number of co-artists) is an elegant interweaving of the life and stories of Andersen and the Canadian librettist hired by the Paris Opera to write an operatic adaptation of one of Andersen's leeser-known stories, The Dryad. We see the hapless Frederic trying to settle into both Paris (in a tenement apartment over a peep show) and into his difficult job pleasing all the collaborators in an international co-production (a nice dig at his own experience of these kinds of complex undertakings). There is humour found in Fred's interactions with the opera manager (all roles played by Lepage) who is too busy and distracted to ever attend to the needs of the low-status Canadian in this high-profile production. The opera manager's opening monologue to Fred over coffee in an outdoor Paris bistro is a verbal barrage that effectively skewers the politics and economics that drive these multinational projects, sacrificing artistry and integrity along the way. Plus, Frederic is also dog-sitting his drug addict friend's drug-addicted pooch, Fanny, a creature which gets many laughs throughout the play, despite being invisible. The third main character played by Lepage in the present is a silent Moroccan immigrant named Rashid who is janitor in the seedy peep show and street grafitti artist. His presence reminds us of the problems faced by France and many other Western nations in integrating these understandably angry young immigrants into a society that offers them little or nothing in the way of jobs, understanding or respect.

As the show unfolds (an apt metaphor for Lepage's storytelling here, that has been described as a Russian matrioshka doll, where many smaller dolls are hidden inside the largest one), we get to know these characters, especially Frederic and the opera manager, by watching them talk to others on the phone, in cafes, at the peep show, in an animal psychologist's office, in the park, at the opera, on a train...many settings all created with the stunning imagery that is obviously Lepage's great gift to theatre. The computer images are always effective, projected as they are onto a concave white box set that moves up and down stage throughout. Objects are placed into the white box also; a 19th century luggage set (Andersen's), a statue, a tree...along with Lepage himself. Andersen is silent in the show, like Rashid, but we catch glimpses of him as he is described as an essentially lonely man who suffered great bouts of unrequited love (symbolized in the slow undressing of a 19th century mannequin that flees from him in the final moment) and a predilection for onanism. As we hear the story of The Dryad told to us in episodic fashion, we see it staged in exquisite puppetry that climaxes with Lepage pulling off one of the most amazing quick-changes (among many in the show that are inexplicable in their speed and seamlessness) from Frederic to the Dryad who floats over the city of Paris in 1867, the year Andersen visited for the Word's Fair.

One other Andersen tale is told to us, by the opera manager; we see him tell it to his young daughter as a bedtime story. Using only the concave white box and a bright bedside lamp, he tells us the story called The Shadow about a man whose shadow takes over his life and destroys him. This becomes a metaphor for the journey of the manager, whose marriage falls apart and who shares Andersen's addiction to solitary sex. A scene set in one of the peep show booths where he is trying to masturbate but is interrupted by cell phone calls, is quite devastating.

Frederic is suffering too, as his work is ignored and he is unceremoniously fired from the opera. He is trying to reconcile with his girlfriend back in Montreal and his phone calls home are filled with hopeless longing. The play ends with him waking up to smoke and flames in the rundown apartment and we are left to wonder about his fate.

There is much else going on this production; objects slide on and off stage on tracks, music blasts and soothes, phone and peep show booths move in from the wings or from upstage to down. In one scene we are in an internet cafe where Fred's email is written in realtime and projected into the white box over his head. Moments that make one take short intakes of breath that signal amazed surprise. But all of this dazzling display of virtuosity is never at the expense of the storytelling; I left feeling that I had really come to know and care for the people that Lepage has both created and embodied in his understated, yet potent, way.

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