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22 août 2008

Robert Lepage wants to tell you a story...

BY Dominic Maxwell, From The Times, August 18, 2008

... but it will take the Canadian theatrical wizard nine hours to tell it at the Barbican next month

Robert Lepage may well be the most exciting theatrical practitioner of the past two decades - a man who, as Peter Gabriel put it, “makes theatre for people who don't like theatre”. But can even he dazzle, move and amuse an audience for nine straight hours? He's about to find out. It's late March, at the converted fire station in his native Quebec City, Canada, that has been his base for the past 15 years. In a moment, after five years of workshops and try-outs - including a frisky little five-hour version he took to Newcastle last summer - he's about to show off the full, nine-act version of Lipsynch for the first time.

“You'll see some things that fly, some things that are half-baked,” he says backstage, in the measured but musical French-Canadian accent that will be familiar to anyone who has seen one-man triumphs such as The Far Side of the Moon. And the sheer length of it? He shrugs: nine characters, nine connected stories, it felt like a good challenge. And it also gives it a talking-point appeal for festivals. “There will be pauses, time to go to the washroom, time to eat. So it's seven hours plus intervals. Bad theatre, you feel like you're a hostage, right? In good theatre, however long it is, time dilates.”

At 3pm Lepage greets an invited audience of locals, friends and supporters. Your feedback, he tells them in French, is vital - six months before its premiere at the Barbican in September, this remains a work-in-progress. True enough, the dialogue, devised in four languages with the cast of nine, has its makeshift moments. But the staging? Often astounding. Nobody else could make a story themed around “the voice” quite so visual.

From the first scene, set in midair on a jumbo jet, you're in the land of Lepage: huge, high-tech sets that play host to intimate exchanges. At just after midnight the audience stands to applaud. Lepage joins his cast for a bow. There is work to do. But, over nine hours - seven hours plus intervals - it is never dull.

Lepage is not a household name - even the taxi drivers of Quebec City appear not to have heard of him. But his 25 years of telling stories that don't make you feel like a hostage have made Lepage a worldwide art-house draw in theatre, opera and film.

Epics such as The Dragons' Trilogy and The Seven Streams of the River Ota helped to make his name in the Eighties and Nineties. He has directed tours for Peter Gabriel, created a £90 million show for Cirque du Soleil, made five films, although he's not planning any more of those: “It takes too much time - and I discovered, very late, that film is very untheatrical.”

When we meet again months later, on an afternoon off in London, Lepage is as affable, amused and composed as he was minutes before his big show in March. Wearing a black wig - he developed alopecia, a condition that causes complete hair loss, when he was 5 - he looks younger than his 50 years. His success, he says, has been due to his not knowing the rules. “When I come to Europe,” he says, “I meet some very interesting young playwrights who are crushed by this huge tradition you have here. In Quebec theatre is so young. Everything is to be invented.”

Lepage was raised in a working-class household, in which two languages were spoken, “a metaphor for Canada”. His parents adopted two young Irish children from Nova Scotia and sent them to an English-speaking school. Then, six years later, when they had first Robert and then his sister Lynda, they sent their biological children to a French-speaking school: “That kind of divided the family in two.” They all spoke French at the dinner table. “But there were fights! Everything was double in Quebec in those days; you would have a TV channel in English and one in French, both showing the same hockey game. And we would row about which one we would watch.”

So in making a show about language and the voice, Lepage knows whereof he speaks. “In French I have to speak properly, I have to organise my arguments in a French way. But when I speak in English, my language is far from perfect. If I can't find the word, people have to accept that. So I have a lot of freedom - it's a different personality. Somebody who speaks in a certain way thinks in a certain way.”

His mother Germaine, he says, was a great storyteller. But he learnt that it might be possible to make a living by telling stories by seeing his taxi driver father, Ferdinand, at work. To amuse American tourists while taking them on local tours, “he would tell stories about the area and spice them up - to survive, really”. Lepage used some of those memories in his film Le Confessional. But although Lepage is a gay man who grew up with alopecia in a bilingual family and who was bullied, depressed and - for a while - agoraphobic at high school, his work rarely plunders such difficulties directly.

“No, I never wanted to do that. I mean, there are so many gay shows. In Quebec all theatre was about coming out for a while, and I would just think: ‘Oh come on!' For me it was just something in my life, it wasn't a problem. I didn't feel I had to be a spokesperson. The alopecia, the other personal stuff, I let it emerge into my work. I'll use some other starting point - like Hans Christian Andersen in The Andersen Project - and then find out after 20 or 30 shows, oh no, it's really all about me! And you think, well, the work dragged it out of me - because I don't understand these things, because I don't know exactly how they affect me, or how my struggle, how my example can help others. I don't think about that. It wouldn't help.”

But the results can be incredibly personal and poignant, however much of the circus there is in the way that he tells his tales. Nobody who saw The Far Side of the Moon, a tale of grief, sibling rivalry and the space race, will ever forget the final image in which a well-placed mirror makes it look as if Lepage is walking in space. And there are moments in Lipsynch - such as when one tipsy character appears to be walking through furniture - that must have prompted some high fives at Lepage HQ when they first tried them out.

“Oh yeah!” he chuckles. “You have to do numbers. It is a cabaret attitude to serious playwriting - they're numbers. And when you study Shakespeare carefully - the good ones, not the dogs - each scene, each monologue, is a number. Shakespeare has a preoccupation with the audience. He knows that, after a while, after ten minutes, people are either drunk or bored or they need to go to the washroom. So he has to hit them with a song or a sonnet or pageantry or whatever.”

Easy, then. But if everyone could combine pageantry with the personal as Lepage does, he wouldn't be the worldwide art-house draw he is. And his success has been on his own terms. He lives, with his boyfriend Kevin McCoy, a few minutes' walk away from his studio. He won't do a Broadway or West End show, because they demand the sort of instant results that are anathema to a man whose Cirque du Soleil show had 80 previews before it opened.

He's had his lulls - Elsinore, his one-man Hamlet, was plagued by technical troubles; his A Midsummer Night's Dream was a muddy mess at the National Theatre. But he remains one of the most revered figures in world theatre. Next year he teams up with the dancer Sylvie Guillem and choreographer Russell Maliphant for a wordless show called Eonnagata, and his diary is booked up to at least 2012, when he finishes his staging of Wagner's Ring cycle for the New York Met. No small gigs, these. Can it be hard to live up to people's expectations?

“Oh, absolutely. But, you know, great! I don't need money any more and I don't need recognition. People have said so many times that this is my swansong, that the emperor has no clothes. So I don't really care; being told that you're dead so many times gives you the freedom to do what you really want.”

But is he not after someone's approval? Who is in the back of Robert Lepage's cab? “Well,” he says, “I've had much easier success abroad than I do at home or in France. But I think I have always tried to please the French.

“The Canadian writer Michel Tremblay said something I liked. ‘Everybody is trying to be international. That doesn't mean anything. You have to be universal. And if you do want to do something universal, you have to do something local.' That's true. So the first person I have in mind is my sister: will she understand this? Will she be moved by it? I'm trying to please... well, I won't say the layman. But the place where I live is my first audience.”

Lipsynch runs at the Barbican Theatre, London EC2, Sept 6 to 14 (020-7638 8891;

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