Studying Robert Lepage: A Micro Industry

Robert Lepage’s Original Stage Productions: Making Theatre Global
By Karen Fricker
272 pp. Manchester University Press

Robert Lepage’s Intercultural Encounters
By Christie Carson
100 pp. Cambridge University Press

Robert Lepage/Ex Machina: Revolutions in Theatrical Space
By James Reynolds
256 pp. Methuen Drama

Robert Lepage’s Scenographic Dramaturgy: The Aesthetic
Signature at Work
By Melissa Poll
212 pp. Palgrave Macmillan

Reviewed by Mark Fisher*

Is Robert Lepage an opportunity or a threat? To read the academic literature that has built up around the Quebecois theatremaker, it is hard to be sure. The authors fuelling the micro-industry of Lepage studies are at once attracted and repelled, beguiled and affronted, charmed and confounded by a director who seems to set his own rules and play by an agenda that is as disruptive as it is enticing.

Should they be dazzled by his three-dimensional use of space or conflicted by his liberal attempts at universality? Do they need a new vocabulary to analyse a “text” that is written in more than mere words, or should they be concerned about the ambivalent meanings of his pictorial images? Is it possible to pin down an artist who embraces solo shows, large-scale epics, classical stagings, opera, dance, film, circus, concerts, hi-tech exhibitions and comic books or should their true focus be on his production company, Ex Machina?

In these four Lepage books published in English since 2018, it is rare for a chapter to go by without seeing the words “problematised” and “complicated.” The prodigious output of the 63-year-old auteur challenges the writers and sets them on guard, as if they have been presented with an especially knotty riddle. Their urge to resolve the contradictions, to rationalise and to find order can drive them away from asking why they were attracted to the work in the first place.

Which is why Canadian theatre critic and professor Karen Fricker’s monograph does well to consider that very question. Indeed, she devotes a chapter of Robert Lepage’s Original Stage Productions: Making Theatre Global (2020) to “Lepage’s affective economy,” what she sees as the director’s “capacity to evoke a sense of wonderment.” Without that capacity, it is unlikely such a wealth of academic brain power would have been devoted to him, but in all the theorising, it is the hardest thing to pin down.

Lepage is at his most affecting in moments of transformation, when a washing machine becomes a goldfish bowl or a figure rolling on the stage becomes a man floating in space, to take two images from his creation The Far Side of the Moon (2000). We see such transformations among children at play and in a magician’s sleight of hand, and to watch them on stage is a primal delight. Fricker explains how Lepage’s layered storytelling allows the transformations to take place across time and space, making “two distant locations seem to co-exist in the same space.” Coupled with an absorbing narrative, they take on emotive force, but they retain the elliptical quality of a dream; we feel them more easily than we can define them. “A thorough consideration of Lepage’s engagement with the spectator,” writes Fricker, “must take on board questions of feeling.”

Not that there is anything touchy-feely about Fricker’s book. Quite the opposite. It is rigorously researched and cross-referenced. To use a Lepagean analogy, it operates on the same principle as Tectonic Plates, the 1988 production that used the movement of continental plates as a metaphor for human collision, combination and disintegration. “We’ve tried to build it in a geological way,” Lepage told me when the show played in Glasgow in 1990. “You have things going on at the surface, but to understand it, you must have things going on at the second and third layers.”

This “vertical” way of understanding the work of a theatre-maker who is drawn to juxtaposition and metaphor finds a parallel in Fricker’s study, which considers Lepage’s work through the lens of a formidable range of disciplines. Her armoury includes Brecht, Eisenstein, Foucault, Freud, Lacan and Rancière, and takes in neoliberalism, feminism, cinema studies, post-colonialism and queer theory. It is as if she is holding up Lepage’s output to a variety of lights, switching briskly from philosophical theory to academic analysis, journalistic criticism and her own sharp-eyed descriptions to make sense of a multi-faceted director. Following her footnotes could lead to a lifetime of learning.

If that level of scrutiny sounds a lot, Lepage’s output seems to merit it. Not only has he been celebrated internationally (and Fricker has much to say about how that reflects on the values of the global festival circuit), but also he has been frequently “held up in official discourses as evidence of the vitality of Quebec itself.” In other words, he is not just a fascinating artist in his own right, one who can be both lucid and elusive when discussing his work, but a symbol of late-20th century movements in cultural power. Fricker calls him a “paradigmatic figure in the contemporary, globalised performing arts.”

One of her insights is the way Lepage’s early work with Théâtre Répère, and later with Ex Machina, lost some of its meaning when removed from its Quebecois context. The Dragon’s Trilogy (1985) was, she says, the first piece of Lepage’s work “to become globalised” and, as it toured the world, it ceased to be seen as “an allegory of Quebec’s national self-realisation” and to be regarded instead as a piece of sensory stagecraft. Fricker identifies a line of socio-cultural critique in Lepage’s work that has, effectively, been lost in translation and points to London critics, in particular, for overlooking intellectual aspects in favour of formal qualities. Her point is that Lepage did not appear sui generis, but was formed, like any of us, from specific cultural, political and artistic influences.

This is a theme picked up by Christie Carson in Robert Lepage’s Intercultural Encounters (2021), a short investigation into how shifting attitudes to representation made Lepage vulnerable to the charge of cultural appropriation. In 2018, he created Kanata, about the relationship between First Nations people and Canada’s colonisers, and Slav, which drew on African American slave songs. He was accused of failing to involve indigenous artists in one and black collaborators in the other.

Thirty years earlier, the same charge was not, on the whole, levelled at The Dragon’s Trilogy, despite white actors taking on the roles of Chinese characters. That is partly because the French-speaking company—and its original audiences—saw themselves as a minority in an English-speaking country and instinctively claimed common cause with other cultural outsiders. That universalist perspective is hard to sustain years later when a group of people—perhaps even the same group of people—talks from a privileged perspective on behalf of those with less power. “While times have changed, in many ways, Lepage’s working method has not altered as much as it could or should have,” asserts Carson, carefully explaining the historical roots of the problem in a bilingual country with a fractious past. Both Fricker and Carson observe how the creation and the reception of the work has been affected by different cultural contexts and expectations.

These publications are only the latest additions to a sizable Lepage library. Aleksandar Dundjerovic alone has written three books on the director’s theatre and cinema. They sit on the shelf alongside works including Rémy Charest’s Connecting Flights, Ludovic Fouquet’s The Visual Laboratory of Robert Lepage, Jane Koustas’s Robert Lepage on the Toronto Stage and the essay anthology Theater sans frontiers. That is in addition to publications in French, Portuguese, Italian and German, and the output of the Ex Machina camp itself, including scripts and even a graphic novel.

Fortunately, Lepage’s output is substantial enough for the authors to divide the spoils between them. Fricker hones in on Lepage’s original productions in the context of globalisation. Carson considers the cultural tensions created by a bilingual Romeo and Juliette, co-directed with Gordon McCall in 1989, as well as looking at representations of China in The Dragon’s Trilogy.

In Robert Lepage’s Scenographic Dramaturgy, Melissa Poll is drawn to his opera productions and what she calls his auto-adaptations—the re-staging and re-imaging of his own work. That still leaves plenty of material for James Reynolds to cover in Revolutions in Theatrical Space, which catches up with lesser known, but often pivotal productions that join the dots between the blockbusters.

Poll and Reynolds, in particular, have an interest in explaining Lepage’s way of authoring plays in three dimensions. The tradition of understanding drama purely in terms of words on a page is old-fashioned at the best of times and especially inadequate to describe the work of an artist who “writes” directly onto the stage space itself. This, asserts Poll, is true not only for his original work but also when Lepage stages an existing text or score and puts his own stamp on it. The process is one she calls “scenographic dramaturgy,” the act of adding meaning through visual means. She says it applies to restagings of his own work, which are never straight revivals, as much as to adaptations of the classics: “Lepage’s scenic writing defines his affective adaptations, allowing him to visually adapt canonical texts and revive other lesser-known works through his distinctly twenty-first-century version of écriture scénique.”

Like Poll, Reynolds has spent time observing Lepage in rehearsal and has niggling questions about where credit should lie in “his” devised productions. An Ex Machina show is at once by Lepage and created in conjunction with actors, designers and technicians, some but not all of whom are credited as authors. That is why Reynolds has been careful to include the names of both Robert Lepage and Ex Machina in the title of his book.

He observes that Lepage has built the company in his likeness, aided in no small part by producer Michel Bernatchez, but that is not to say Ex Machina contributes nothing in its own right. In his rise-and-fall-and-rise-again narrative, Reynolds describes how Lepage learned that even with outside commissions, he would get best results if Ex Machina were a co-producer. No other company is quite as geared up to expect such long gestation times, constant revising and across-the-board collaborative working. Yet, even if Lepage might prefer to present himself as a collaborator more than an auteur, his “place as the company’s defining feature is hard to ignore,” as Fricker says in her chapter about the company’s branding. Lepage is both figurehead and team player—another of his many contradictions.

Echoing Fricker, Reynolds roots the company’s work in its native Quebec. In particular, he alights on the word “patenteux,” a distinctively French-Canadian term that describes artists or craftspeople who create from limited means. For all his multi-million dollar budgets for Cirque du Soleil and the Metropolitan Opera, Lepage is skilled in this kind of resourcefulness. Drawn to contradictions, limitations and juxtapositions, he is at his most creative when playfully inventing new meanings for old objects. If he needs a machine to achieve an effect, he invents the machine. “It’s always a question of necessity,” he tells Reynolds in an original interview.

Perhaps this restless creativity accounts for the breadth of Lepage’s output. Reynolds is especially good at considering not only the operas and classics, but also the installations and dance pieces that make up the Ex Machina catalogue. At any given point, the company will be working on several productions, the innovations of one feeding into the formation of another. Métissages, for example, was an exhibition about cultural identity mounted in Quebec City’s Museum of Civilisation in 2000. It is rarely mentioned in writing about Lepage, but Reynolds makes a convincing case for it being as much part of the “Ex Machina experience” as any better known show, not least because it had themes in common with his 2015 solo performance 887.

Similarly in her book, Poll points to the example of The Blue Dragon (2008) which began as a kind of spin off to The Dragon’s Trilogy, was then illustrated by Fred Jourdain as a graphic novel, which, in turn, influenced the storyline of the ever-changing stage production. With such crosscurrents of creativity flowing back and forth, it is unlikely this latest batch of books will be the last word on a theatremaker who is as magnetic as he is uncontainable. 

*Mark Fisher is a Scottish-based theatre critic for the Guardian, a former editor of the List magazine and a freelance writer. He is the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide and How to Write About Theatre, both published by Bloomsbury.

Copyright © 2021 Mark Fisher
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