An unforgettable window into the seminal moments of a nation by one of theatre’s living legends
Of all the art forms, theatre is the most ephemeral; once that curtain comes down, the only place a production exists is in the audience’s memory. French Canadian theatre maker Robert Lepage and his company Ex Machina have been tinkering with this medium for decades, and return to Melbourne (where they last presented Lipsynch, in 2012) with a project dedicated to memory, both personal and collective.
887 is an autobiographical one-man show – the title is the address of Lepage’s childhood home – but it is also a beautifully considered evocation of a seminal moment in the history of Québec: the October Crisis of 1970, when the Liberation Front of Québec kidnapped and murdered cabinet minister Pierre Laporte in a bid for French Canadian sovereignty. Lepage was 12 at the time, but some memories are hard to shake.
The play begins in the house Lepage grew up in: apartment five at 887 Murray Street. We learn the origin of the street’s name, which in turn leads us to the origin of the country’s divided cultural heritage (James Murray was a British Governor of Quebec who was replaced for being too sympathetic to the French Canadians). We learn about the people living in the building’s other apartments, which leads us to an understanding of Canada’s ethnic and economic make-up circa 1970. Most importantly, we learn about the Lepage family dynamics and the cramped quarters that are made more difficult by the addition of a grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease.
There is something of the slide show – or perhaps the personal powerpoint presentation – about the way Lepage introduces the key players of his childhood. Anyone who has seen an Ex Machina production before will know that there is nothing homely or simplistic about their staging; they employ the most dazzling theatrical technology available, and 887 is nothing if not visually astonishing. The apartment building is a marvel, a large-scale revolving model with individual apartments that light up and seem to contain tiny people going about their various lives. It’s a magician’s light box in service to the quotidian.
The show is structured around Lepage’s experience memorising a famous Québécois poem by Michèle Lalonde called Speak White. Lepage has been asked to recite the seminal poem at a significant public event, and as the date approaches and the poem fails to stick, his anxiety increases. He employs an old friend, Fred, who works for the state’s television station and is handy with mnemonics. These prove futile, but Lepage does learn of the existence of what the industry terms a ‘cold cut’ – a video obituary the station prepares in advance of a celebrity’s death. Lepage becomes desperate to see his own cold cut, with hilarious and ultimately touching results.
In fact, this could be seen as 887’s primary mode: constantly thrumming humour that gently ushers in poignancy and melancholia. While this is largely a function of the brilliant rhyming script, it is aided immeasurably by the staging, which calls to mind the dollhouse or children’s diorama. Lepage carries an iPhone which he tells us at the beginning functions as his memory store, but he also uses its camera to peer into the miniature sets that pop up throughout. These views are projected onto a screen, giving us an ingenious child-like perspective of his aunt and uncle’s house where he spent one Christmas, or the crowds at Charles de Gaulle’s ticker tape parade from the phone mounted on a toy car.
887 is a totally immersive journey into one man’s childhood memories, but it never becomes mawkish or indulgent. The wider social context is woven delicately through the personal testimony, and through it we learn about the ways a community can remember and the ways it can forget. We tend to think of Canada as a unified, contented country nestled north of a madhouse, but Lepage reminds us of the fractious and battle-scarred aspects of the nation’s history. When he does finally recite the poem Speak White – itself an incendiary reminder that language can obliterate as much as memorialise – it is like a paean to a half-forgotten world. It should live long in the memories of every audience member who witnesses it.
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