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19 février 2007

Mission impossible

It's nine hours long, it took five years to make - and there's no script. Robert Lepage explains the chaos of his new project to Lyn Gardner, The Guardian

'Chaos," says theatre director Robert Lepage with a zen-like smile that makes him look like a small, round Buddha, "is a good thing. People think that it is negative, but in fact chaos can be very fertile." Which is just as well because it is already Wednesday afternoon and his show, Lipsynch, opens tonight with a script nowhere near finished and a couple of characters not yet created. What script there is appears to be on crumpled bits of paper in people's pockets. You might expect cast, crew and director to be running around in a frenzy, but everyone looks remarkably relaxed. That's because Lipsynch, at Northern Stage in Newcastle, is no ordinary show.

A meditation on the nature of voice, it is the latest work by Robert Lepage, whose dazzling shows, including Far Side of the Moon, the Andersen Project and The Dragon's Trilogy, have captivated audiences around the world with their mixture of storytelling and stunning imagery. Perhaps more than any other director, Lepage has found a truly distinctive voice, and he believes that for all of us the voice is "the DNA of the soul, the unexplainable source of our being".

None the less, it seems an unexpected subject for a man whose work has been concerned more with what we see than what we hear. In a Lepage show, an ironing board can become a rocket, and a washing machine door a goldfish bowl, the moon, a clock, even a brain scanner.

No wonder people talk of Lepage as a theatrical conjuror. Peter Gabriel once said Lepage makes theatre for people who don't like theatre. He also makes it for those of us who do. What is certainly the case is that Lepage's shows are never finished until the final curtain call at the final performance.

In the case of Lipsynch, that probably means sometime next decade. Newcastle audiences spending up to £28 a ticket will not be getting a finished show, but they will get the unique opportunity to see and help shape a four-and-a-half-hour work-in-progress that, when it premieres at the Barbican in September 2008, will have become a nine-hour piece featuring the interlinking stories of nine people and many, many characters spanning 70 years from 1945 to 2015.

Part of the excitement for Newcastle audiences is knowing that if you return to the show on Friday, it could be different from the performance you saw on Monday. What you think about the show can also be the impetus for those changes. Such is Lepage's eagerness for feedback that when the company did a workshop performance in Canada, those who failed to respond were warned they would not be invited back.

"I don't think about rehearsing a show," explains Lepage. "We just play. People bring in objects and ideas and we play around with them and improvise, and we wait and see what happens. Over a period of time, the show gradually reveals itself to us."

Actor John Cobb puts it another way: "Going out on stage and knowing that you're going to be there for four-and-a-half hours with very little script is very scary. But it is only in the act of doing it that we discover the show - and that's genuinely thrilling."

Lepage and Cobb make the process sound almost mystical. In fact, it involves a huge amount of time (this project has been five years in the making), hard work, shared intimacy and trust on the part of the actors who must be prepared to risk all. Lepage argues that his collaborative approach takes the emphasis away from the director and gives responsibility back to the actors. "Often, particularly towards the end of the process, I think of myself less as a theatre director and more as someone who just directs the traffic. My job is to move the ideas and bits of the show into the places where they work best. Sometimes my job is also to say, 'No.'"

His methods go against the grain of most British theatre practice, which finds it more convenient to create plays within four weeks using a nailed-down script and set. Britain has seen several Lepage shows, but having one made here is an eye-opener, as Northern Stage's artistic director Erica Whyman says: "We can learn a lot from watching Robert work. I know that seeing the risks he's prepared to take is going to make me a braver director."

In the meantime, she is worried that by the time the after-show talk has finished on Thursday, the last bus will have gone and the audience could be stranded. The show could run long past its alloted time. At a public workshop in Canada last year, one of the crew called a halt after midnight. "We had so much material that we could have gone on all night, so we decided to just stop so everyone could go home and get some sleep," says Lepage.

The collaborative nature of the project makes it out of the ordinary, too. It is a co-production between Lepage's company Ex-Machina, one of the world's best known and best-resourced companies, and Théâtre Sans Frontières, a tiny Hexham-based company founded 15 years ago by Cobb and Sarah Kemp, which tours the UK and abroad, often in schools producing plays in their original language.

"Of course we can't be equals in terms of finance," says Kemp, "but we can be equal as theatre-makers. Robert is the director, but he is a director who is on stage with us all the time. We're all on the same level."

Lepage also thinks he may be getting the most out of the partnership, not least the opportunity to create work away from a capital city, and Newcastle reminds him very much of his home city of Quebec. "When I made a show in Montreal, I had eight weeks of rehearsal and I spent four of those talking to the press," he says. "Here in Newcastle, I can get on with the job. We simply couldn't do that in London. It's just too expensive, too pressured and too big. Making art in big cities is often frustrating and difficult. It's why artists are drawn to smaller places. Think of Pina Bausch, who made her base in Wuppertal. Not Frankfurt. Not Hamburg. Wuppertal! There is another reason to come to Newcastle. In a big city like London, audiences have seen everything. Here they have been exposed to less, but they are very open and interested. That makes us very open, too, and aware that although we want to be experimental, we also have to invite the audience into the story we are trying to tell, and help them understand it. If they come out saying, 'What was that all about?' then we know that we still have a lot more work to do".

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