887, 6/25/16 (Sat), Tokyo
A one-man show by Robert Lepage talking about… Robert Lepage. He reminisces about his life in a lecture format revolving around the theme of memory: what we remember, why we remember (and forget), how those memories affect us, why we recall trivial info like phone numbers from years ago – the 887 in the title reflects his old home address – or certain moments and conversations, and how we reconstruct those memories later.
The show was motivated, he said, by his struggle to memorize a famous separatist poem by a Quebecois poet that he had been asked to recite at an event. He turns to an old method called a memory palace, where the memories are placed in individual rooms of a place we know well. Quebec’s own construction of itself is a key topic throughout – its seeming inferiority complex to Anglo Canada, its desire for independence (in both identity and reality) that veers into terrorism, a visit by de Gaulle that wasn’t the transforming event anticipated.
But Lepage explores the theme more broadly as he recalls various events and people from his past (showing no difficulty, by the way, in reciting long and intricate dialogue over a two-hour show, which would seem to undercut his theme of not remembering). The stories, all dispassionately rendered, were engaging on their own. He goes on at length about his childhood years: his family’s cramped apartment for six (and later a grandmother with dementia who squeezes in as well); his father, once an ambitious boxer and now reduced to driving a cab; his siblings raised in English while he was raised in French; his neighbors, a sundry collection of arguing couples and African immigrants and mysterious residents and others; and so forth. This alternates with scenes of him in his home in the present day trying to learn the poem. The climax was his spirited delivery of the poem, “Speak White”, taken from a phrase used by slave owners that was compared to Anglophone treatment of Francophone Canadians. That seemed a bit overdramatic, and the victimization mentality is not attractive, though the poem was beautifully delivered. It was difficult to find the common thread linking the stories, especially with this ending. The memory theme faded away to something very different.
The element that lifted this piece into another dimension was the dazzling set. Lepage spins a bookcase around and it becomes a doll’s house of many little rooms, each with a video showing tiny people going about their daily activities à la Rear Window; he unfolds that to reveal a long panoramic cityscape with a miniature crowd waving to greet de Gaulle, the people enlarged to huge proportions on a screen via a cell phone camera that Lepage fits to a toy car rolled across the set (the de Gaulle was a little figurine with raised arms that Lepage manipulated amusingly from his jacket pocket); he turns that set around and it’s a life-size kitchen, where he is trying to memorize the poem; another switch takes us to the living room, where he makes phone calls that reach only an answering machine too brief for his messages; then we’re at a lonely café, where his father sits forlornly and drinks a coke; then a bookcase again, whose component parts become yet other set pieces; and further ingenious twists and turns. I wasn’t entirely surprised to see eight backstage staff or so come out at the curtain call given the complexities that must be involved in readying these varied sets for such smooth transitions. The use of video, lighting and sound was all masterful. While the thematic issues weren’t overly convincing, the show was well worth seeing just for this aspect. This show would not appear revivable with anyone else since it’s all about Lepage’s own life, which makes me grateful for having caught it.