Monday September 19, 2005
"This revival of Robert Lepage's five-and-a-half-hour
Quebec epic, last seen in London in 1991, kicks off a season devoted to "Young
Genius". But I can't help thinking that the Barbican and the Young Vic,
the season's joint producers, are being a bit free-and-easy with the word
"genius", for, on a second viewing, you become aware that the visual
and imaginative daring of Lepage's production far exceeds its intellectual
Written by a team of six, the story involves the long and complex fortunes
of two French-Canadian female cousins and their families over 75 years. Jeanne,
daughter of a feckless Quebec barber, is forced to marry a Chinese laundryman's
son to pay off her father's gambling debts. It is a cross-cultural union that
has unhappy consequences. Meanwhile, the more conventional Françoise
makes a wartime alliance with a Canadian soldier and has an artist-son, Pierre,
who falls in love with a Japanese girl whose grandmother was a Butterfly-like
geisha and whose mother was a victim of Hiroshima.
Two things strike me about this. It is often easier
in fiction than in drama to deal with interwoven narratives spanning nearly
a century: a point proved by Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, which has
a similarly expansive framework. Lepage's vision of a society in which the
opposite poles of east and west, yin and yang, male and female are harmoniously
reconciled is also too tenuous to sustain a work that occupies as much theatrical
time as Hamlet or Die Walküre.
Lepage's consummate talent - a better word than "genius"- is evident
in his mastery of space, sound and light. The action takes place in a rectangular
sandpit flanked by a street lamp on one side and a parking attendant's hut
on the other. And the images created within that space are often mesmerising.
A darkened barber's shop takes on eerie echoes of Sweeney Todd, a poker game
is evoked through syncopated beats on an oil-drum, a protesting nun in a Chinese
square is borne heroically aloft in a bicycle basket. Most extraordinary of
all is the way the simple hut is magically transformed into Chinese laundry,
Toronto shoe shop, x-ray lab and airport kiosk.
Performing in English, French, Cantonese and Mandarin,
the cast of eight create a whole world on stage with astonishing versatility.
If I were visually and aurally dazzled rather than emotionally or intellectually
stirred, I suspect it was because the young Lepage was a master theatrical
technician still searching for the ideal form. "