After decades of detouring issues of cultural identity, the veteran writer, actor and director creates his own confessional with 887, a new one-man show that revisits the minutia of memory
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER, BC — Robert Lepage always looks a little uncomfortable up there, standing like a ten-year-old at the altar, hands forcibly clasped, waiting for some wafer-thin affirmation of self. It’s the reason why his one-man shows are probably the best in the world: He can manifest conflict just by standing on stage.
The quake of insecurity. It’s deep: A black vein of that shimmers though his oeuvre and powers his creative locomotive, now many cars long, with a relentless head of steam. As a critic who’s followed his shiny train of thought for decades, I’ve always wondered where that dark seam started. And when I had the occasion of interviewing him, I would ask.
Whence the duality? Is there a political element? And he would always remain entirely vague, saying he was neither separatist nor federalist, calling himself a citizen of the world.
But that was all before he had to read Speak White for the 40th anniversary performance of Michèle Lalonde’s poem at Montreal’s Le festival de la poésie. And before he found himself negotiating the currency of his own memory, walking through the hallways of his childhood home.
It’s all on display — quite literally — in his latest one-man show, 887. Created with his theatre group Ex Machina, and named after 887 Murray, his Quebec City street address while growing up during the “Quiet Revolution,” Lepage’s latest creation finally drills to the core of his prolific conflict and gives voice to some up-front contempt.
All in the name of good drama, of course. Because while 887 answers some questions about Lepage’s formative experiences from a political perspective — such as standing on the parade route with his family to catch a glimpse of de Gaulle during his famous “Vive Le Quebec Libre!” visit, and being grilled at the feet of a soldier during the October Crisis — 887 asks deeper questions about identity.
And they begin the moment the play begins, with the house lights up and Lepage walking onto the stage to give a few introductory remarks before a black curtain. He clears his throat, lets one hand float, and tells us to turn off our phones and pagers. Then, with a hint of disembodied recitation, he talks a little bit about how reliant we are on our devices, how easily we forget things, and then, without a single lighting cue or announcement, you realize the show just started.
A screen appeared. Sets emerged behind hidden doors.
Lepage’s stagecraft is so seamless and elegant, it feels like a high end magic show and yields the same delight. When he pulls a corner to reveal a scale model of number 887 Murray, complete with tiny screens and micro-dramas playing out in every gorgeously sculpted suite, a giddy squeal ripples down to your spine and wakes your inner child.
Only in retrospect do you really appreciate the genius of Lepage’s whole design: He plays to our youth because that’s where this play lives, as Lepage was forced to create “a memory palace” in order to pull off that poetry reading.
According to the self-penned script, the only way he was going to remember Lalonde’s revolutionary poem chronicling Quebec’s struggle for recognition was to mentally associate different chunks of the poem to different rooms of a house he knew well.
Eight-eight-seven Murray became his memory palace, and while Lepage stands like a sentinel beside the model, he lets us haunt his past.
He takes us back to the day when his grandmother was forced to move in because she was suffering the symptoms of Alzheimers. He also shows us how he first discovered theatre hanging out with his sisters, creating a stage with little more than a blanket hung over a bunkbed.
The trips back in time are rendered with the miniatures, and using his modern memory device — his phone — Lepage even films himself within the tiny sets, playing meta-director on a model scale.
“Technology is changing the way we see the world,” he told me once. “I’ve always welcomed a new gadget because every new gadget brings with it a new idea that is trying to be expressed…. The new tools of the film industry, such as video, bring new ideas — not just new solutions. They form a whole new aesthetic,” he said. “I’m very interested in exploring these new technological frontiers because they change the way we see the world — the way we perceive reality.”
It also changes the way we perceive ourselves, from the plain act of shooting a selfie to the digital footprint we leave behind. Lepage plays with these ideas every time we see his face on the screen, moving through the tiny spaces as more than the omniscient narrator of his own past, against the scale models, he assumes the stature of a god.
The modern-day moments are full-size — rendered to human scale — as they should be because it’s where Lepage plays out his personal identity crisis: He can’t remember things, and if he can’t remember who he is, who is he? When he makes the connection to the Quebec license plate credo “Je me souviens,” the theme of memory and identity and an underlying Quebecois consciousness come full circle.
You can hear the dramatic awakening in his voice, moving from a rehearsed stammer to a more declarative tone. Eventually, he even gives voice to pent-up rage. Playing his younger self, he re-enacts his meeting with an armed soldier during the 1970 October Crisis — the year Lalonde first performed her poem. When the soldier demands he open his bag of newspapers for inspection, he tells the soldier “the bombs aren’t in my bag, they’re in my head!” It’s a line he must have silenced in the moment, but he gives it his full throated conviction in the play as he carries out his own personal revolt through revision.
It’s a multi-pronged revolution, but it stalls on ego when Lepage learns his own legacy and posthumous identity has already been recorded. His old buddy who told him about the memory palace works at the national broadcaster, and informs Lepage his obituary is already in the vault. He’s desperate to hear it, and finally bribes his pal to pull a copy.
The resulting confrontation with ego, avatars and projections of self is the funniest part of the play, but it’s only when he owns all this underlying insecurity that he’s able to move forward. He has a breakthrough when he realizes the only reason why he agreed to recite Speak White was to impress all the fancy-pants funding people, government patrons and the designated intellectual elites. It was all for ego, for legacy, to prove he belonged at the long table of Quebec’s cultural lions alongside the likes of Michèle Lalonde.
And shortly after staring into this mirror of truth, we get the moment we’ve been waiting for since the house lights dimmed: His recitation of Speak White, the poem that launched the long voyage inward now delivered in a loud, confident, unwavering voice.
To hear Lepage own the verses about disenfranchisement, oppression and cultural shame felt like witnessing a rite of passage; Lepage’s coming-out party as a true Quebecer.
The signature insecurity vaporized in a single flash of poetic canon fire and oratorial tone. Robert Lepage didn’t just remember the words. After a lifetime of internal conflict and ‘Speaking White,’ Lepage pulled off his most significant victory to date and recited Lalonde’s three-page poem without a pause, entirely by heart.
Photo: Robert Lepage with the scale model of 887 Murray. Photo by Eric Labbé.
THE EX-PRESS February 16, 2016