Quebec’s Robert Lepage has become a familiar face on the Scottish theatre scene over the past few years. Mark Fisher catches up with him as his startling production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play heads for Glasgow.
ast time I wrote about Robert Lepage
on these pages I alluded to his
conversational habit of dropping in
unexpected metaphors to describe his
work. Pizzas and holograms were two I
mentioned then. This time round the French-Canadian director is onto cakes. Now. it has to be said that the cake analogy is one in which we theatre hacks are well versed. it’s a small-time similc in the major metaphor league. but Lepage is still capable of cooking up a tasty one.
He's telling me about the difﬁculty of opening a show — The Seven Streams of the River ()ta —— at a major international festival — Edinburgh — while hoping audiences will appreciate that it’s only the ﬁrst tentative three hours of a seven- hour epic. a work-in-progress. still being devised. developed. worked and reworked . . . ready to be seen but not yet complete. This long- term view is not an easy one to put across. and when the show opened at last year’s Festival the ﬁrst-night critics gave it a pretty heavy. though not unanimous pasting. Nine months on. it’s not so much that Lepage wants to apologise for the ﬁrst excursion of this ambitious meditation on the legacy of Hiroshima (nor should he — even by the end of its ﬁrst week it was slick and engaging. weakened only by its open- endedness). it’s more that he recognises that if a play is going to take a long time learning to walk. then it should take its ﬁrst steps away from the glare of the world’s media.
‘Doing these big six or seven—hour productions is like baking a cake.‘ he explains. ‘and you say instead of having a regular mould we’re going to have a seven-hour mould. Until the batter touches the sides of the mould it‘ll never thicken. You just need to keep on pouring stuff into it. Then at one point the batter starts to touch some of the sides and you start to get a shape and you say. “Now I understand where we’re going." Until we get the whole thing there’s no way we can put it in the oven and make it get really thick.’
When Lepage had breakfast a couple of years ago with Peter Brook (he (Ioesn ’I want to name drop, but) he was surprised to learn that much of what the great director did immediately after The Mahabharata was done almost out of a sense of moral duty. not quite a contractual obligation. but a way of repaying all those co- producers who had supported the creation of the nine~hour Indian epic. It was only when he did L’Homme Qui. . .. which emerged from a small. experimental research project. that Brook felt he’d refound his true theatrical feet. Lepage
12 The List 19 May-l Jun 1995
never imagined he‘d ﬁnd himself in the same situation. if only because he wasn’t a big enough name. but indeed the experience of Seven Streams has taught him to tread tnore cautiously on the international festival circuit.
So in the same way that 3‘ turns tip for secret
gigs to jam the night away without the bother of
publicity. the artist currently known as Lepage. now with his own regular theatre space in Quebec City. has taken to staging lightning performances with the minimum possible notice. Each time his company reaches a satisfactory point of development with Seven Streams. an
Robert Lepage: Baklng one of those big seven-hour cakes
advert will appear in the local paper announcing a performance that day. No press. no theatre people. no pressure.
Now clocking in at ﬁve hours and heading for Vienna at the end of the month. the show is getting into gear. ‘People don’t believe me but the more you cut something. the longer it gets.’ says Lepage echoing a Cocteau line from his Mayfest show Needles and Opium. ‘The longer this thing gets the shorter it feels. There’s much more enthusiasm for it now.’
A similarly unpressured atmosphere was something the director enjoyed when he was