FEATURE ROBERT LEPAGE
To be or not to be?
Theatrical wizard Robert Lepage was last seen in Scotland cancelling performances of his hi-tech solo show Elsinore. Undeterred, he’s bringing it back; and this time, he assures Andrew Burnet, his circuits are
he scene is a plush hotel in Edinburgh,
home to the lntemational Festival’s
press bureau. Enter, stage left,
Festival director Brian McMaster and
Canadian theatre maverick Robert
Lepage. The chorus — ladies and gentlemen of the world’s press - falls silent. McMaster speaks the prologue: it is his sad duty to announce the cancellation of Monsieur Lepage’s show, Elsinore, a multi-media, one- man version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which was to have launched the Festival’s theatre programme.
Lepage’s performance in this little drama is humble but not sheepish. ‘I would compare the situation to a dance company where one of the main dancers breaks or twists a limb and you have to cancel and wait for it to be cured,’ he offers. ‘lt’s a pity,’ he quips, ‘because the other performer is in very good shape.’ This is indisputable. The human player is there before us, tall, muscular, and strikingly healthy- looking. The other protagonist, a mass of computer-driven techno-staging, has been laid low by a damaged Achilles heel, a widget worth a teasing $150 but completely unavailable in
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Europe. The understudy component sits in a workshop in Quebec.
Fast-forward three months and we ﬁnd Lepage in a London hotel. Elsinore is about to embark on a ﬁve-venue British tour, arriving in Glasgow next week. Clearly, the cancellation didn’t leave Lepage with technophobia.
real production of Hamlet’, to be undertaken ‘when I’m a much older, much more experienced director.’ For now, though, a unique exploration. ‘Doing a solo version immediately gets you searching for the echoes of Hamlet in other characters; and actually it’s quite amazing how all the other characters are a mirror-image or an echoed image of Hamlet.’
In Denys Arcand’s marvellous ﬁlm Jesus De Montreal, Lepage played an actor who would be Hamlet, yet his own obsession with the character is more recent. ‘1 was kind of shopping around in the Shakespeare repertoire to ﬁnd what would be the most versatile play I could try to explore in this hi-tech fashion,’ he says, ‘and I felt that Hamlet was the most suitable. It was very far from me ten years ago doing the Arcand ﬁlm, but maybe it was a premonition . . .
‘Hamlet is the universal icon of theatre, and with cause. Hamlet is a very complex character and quite a great challenge for an actor — but it’s also about theatre, it uses theatre as a weapon, as the means to achieve one’s goal.’
When the Edinburgh shows were cancelled, Lepage (who calls himself ‘very superstitious’) thought that ‘maybe Shakespeare didn’t want this to happen in Great Britain’. Does he believe Stratford’s ﬁnest son has come round to the idea?
‘Shakespeare’s a very practical theatre craftsman,’ he points out, ‘so I think there is a lot of space in Hamlet for technology. And there is this idea of Hamlet’s head being a machine - in a letter to Ophelia, he compares his mind to a machine.’
Lepage’s third solo show, Elsinore is an extravagant display of special effects, underpinned by raw theatrical devices, using puppetry, simple props and sheer human resourcefulness to augment Lepage's energetic performance. A triumph of post-modemism on more than one level, it has been resoundingly welcomed by some critics, though others have felt that the computerised paraphernalia smothered the heart of the play.
If you can accept a solo, computerised Hamlet, you probably won’t have a problem with the to- being-or-not—to-being of a non-native speaker. Lepage has performed the show in both English and French, but has now abandoned the translation. ‘It hasn’t been very satisfactory,’ he remarks. But if Shakespeare’s lines are challenging to those of us native and to the manner born, surely they’re quite a hurdle to a Francophone, however fluently bilingual.
‘Yeah, completely,’ agrees Lepage. ‘But there are so many translations and analyses of this text in French that I think maybe I had a better understanding of some parts.’ In 1992, Lepage
became the ﬁrst Canadian to
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never in such a critical way.
The press here made a big thing with it and decided that l was humiliated, but I wasn’t humiliated at all.’
Lepage’s company is called Ex Machina - a direct reference to the technology of ancient theatre. His work has always been about blending disparate elements, toying with narrative and form, testing the limits of technology; yet none of this quite accounts for his decision to adapt Hamlet for one actor (himself) and the aforementioned machinery. With humility that rings curiously true, he claims that this project is a kind of preparation for ‘a
English actors knew all about Shakespeare, all about verse, and that they knew more about it than I did; and that turned out to be false. I don’t know if it really is an advantage to have been brought up in a foreign language, but of course I approach Shakespeare’s language in a very different manner because of that.’
This autumn’s been a Shakespeare-heavy season in Scotland, with no fewer than six haunted Danish princes stalking our various stages. But while all Hamlets may be different, Lepage’s will certainly be more different than others.
Elsinore is at Tramway, Glasgow, Tue 3—Sat 7 Dec.