The Argument: why we pay rock concert prices for Robert Lepage

The Argument: why we pay rock concert prices for Robert Lepage

His mind-blowing stagecraft made him a superstar, especially here. Why we pay rock concert prices for Robert Lepage

(Image: Chris Arran)

In the 25 years since Robert Lepage emerged from Quebec City with a playfully theatrical reflection on time, space and travel called Circulations, a slew of international awards have come his way. He also has the distinction of being the first North American to direct a play by Shakespeare at Britain’s National Theatre. And he has collaborated with some of the world’s most compelling performers, including his teenage idol, Peter Gabriel, and the multimedia artist Laurie Anderson. His works—ranging from opera to dance, theatre and film—are famous for their audacious visual wizardry: his ne plus ultra high-tech production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which kicked off with Das Rheingold in September, has reportedly cost the company $16 million. It also sold out a month before opening, breaking all records.

While conventional theatres battle for audiences, Lepage can charge rock concert ticket prices and still pack huge halls. Even people who don’t like theatre flock to his shows, particularly in Toronto, where his fan base is large and growing. He kicked off his opera career here, with 1993’s wildly successful Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung. The nine-hour extravaganza Lipsynch was a massive hit at the Luminato festival in June 2009, as was his staging of Stravinsky (complete with puppeteers in an orchestra pit filled with 67,000 litres of water) for the Canadian Opera Company a few months later. Now he’s back with a double bill: Eonnagata, a new piece starring the man himself, at the Sony Centre; and The Andersen Project at Canadian Stage.

Eonnagata—created last year in London at Sadler’s Wells, Britain’s leading dance producer—is a collaboration with the French contemporary dance sensation Sylvie Guillem and the legendary British choreographer Russell Maliphant. A genre-bending mix of dance and theatre coloured by kabuki and martial arts, it’s woven around the life story of the 18th-century cross-dressing French spy, Charles de Beaumont. The Andersen Project, a 2005 one-man show, uses video, light and spectacular stagecraft to juxtapose the world of high-stakes opera with two Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. In one memorable scene, a modern character walks behind a tree and emerges seconds later as The Dryad’s wood-nymph-made-human. Transformation is a recurring theme in Lepage’s work, though it’s more often visual than psychological; his stories tend to illustrate ideas rather than dramatize conflict. Both Lepage and his pieces are relentlessly cool—lush imagery is typically combined with minimalist dialogue, audacity paradoxically paired with understatement. You’re never quite sure whether he’s a creative genius or a brilliant magician, or if there’s even a difference.

Is Robert Lepage the darling of 21st-century Toronto? It often seems that Quebec’s master of borderless art and this city were destined for communion. Toronto, at once open to the world and yet frequently uncertain of its position, and Lepage’s internationalism are a natural fit. Cultures and languages collide onstage, yet there are no messages about identity politics, the essence of so much traditional urban drama.

For years, Lepage got middling reviews from Quebec critics who resented his early eagerness to work in English. Toronto doesn’t come freighted with that baggage. Here, he’s simply accepted for who he is: a great experimental artist who came to theatre from a side door.

Raised in a working-class home, Lepage grew up fascinated by rock bands that used theatrical staging, such as Genesis. He began acting in his teens, which offered a release from childhood demons of isolation and loneliness brought on by alopecia, a rare skin disease that left him completely hairless. Nor did he share the monoculture so common in Quebec. His parents adopted two English-speaking children before he was born, so he grew up with both languages. Many Lepage works are multilingual; his early opus, The Dragons’ Trilogy, included English, French and Cantonese, but with the help of a few program notes, audience members who didn’t understand the dialogue would have been fully engaged.

Lepage rarely counts on words to convey meaning—rare for a native of Quebec, where language has taken the place of religion as the subject around which an entire society rallies. Words figure often as visual props, scribbles on scrim, or surtitles. I worked with him as a writer in the early 1990s on Alanienouidet, a play about the 19th-century actor Edmund Kean’s encounter with the Huron of Quebec, and we agonized for months over how the Huron chiefs would speak. Prose? Poetry? A variation on English or French? By opening night, the problem had dissolved. The chiefs’ passages were delivered with the gravity of a Shakespearean ghost in Mohawk, a stand-in for the lost language of their tribe. Other characters spoke their lines from inside a longhouse and could hardly be heard. It didn’t seem to matter. The show looked amazing.

Others who’ve worked with Lepage can attest to the thrill and frustration of his never-ending approach to creation. If the pieces themselves have a fluid, dream-like feeling, it’s because they are made that way, the director-writer-maestro taking inspiration from every day’s rehearsal, weaving new ideas into the old until the last minute, and sometimes even into a show’s run. His creed—hardly ever preached but faithfully practised—holds that the story is “out there,” waiting to be found. Theatre is not a revelation from the muse or the product of a central, guiding vision, but an alchemic process, an experience rather than a finite record of thought. Lepage’s productions are alive and ever changing, and therefore best enjoyed viscerally, in the moment.

Like dance and visual art, they are creations of great beauty, the work of a man who makes the emperor’s new clothes seem so wonderfully believable.

The Andersen Project
Oct. 21 to 30, Bluma Appel Theatre

Nov. 18 and 19, Sony Centre