Reviewed by on    All the world's a stage, Theatre in Canada, Theatre in Ottawa and the region   ,

Michèle lalonde reads her poem Speak White in 1970 …scrole down on the Quebec site.

Lets begin at the end! Alone on a darkened stage as the lights are dimming, Robert Lepage reaches the end of his emotional journey into the past. What am I doing here he asks us in his own voice? I have been asked to “remember”, but “remember what?” and his tone becomes angrier and more aggressive and he roars out a thunderous interpretation of Michele Lalonde’s unforgettable anticolonial poem Speak White. The play ends on this rousing high note but the evening’s journey has been full of personal and collective memories that Lepage has gathered together in a most intimate moment with the audience. That ending was hair-raising and even unexpected, because Lepage usually avoids political discussions so one wonders how he really locates himself in relation to this strong statement given Lepage’s career on the international stage, moving from one country to another as his works evolves according to his vision of theatrical process which imiposes constant changes on the event.

Nevertheless this show is an extremely intimate look into his past where he puts himself on stage and the result is the moving vision of a man who has removed all the theatrical masks and for that reason, a powerful look at Quebec’s past.

Now, let’s move to the beginning of the evening as Lepage, playing himself, walks out onto the apron of the NAC theatre and first tells us to close our telephones. In a relaxed and conversational tone, he continues by telling us he has been invited to take part in the 40th anniversary of that first Nuit de la Poésie in 1970, when Michèle Lalonde first read her poem, Speak White about a colonised French language. It was first read just before the October crisis and that poem, in conjunction with Pierre Vallière,s Fanon influenced book Les nègres blancs d’Amérique (1968) suggested at that period that things were going to change radically in the province, With that precise reference still in mind, Lepage then goes on to tell us that the organizers of that 40th anniversary want him to recite the poem by heart! How can he remember such a long poem first spoken 40 years ago? And from that moment on, he begins questioning the process of memory, and thinking of mnémotechnical strategies for helping people to memorize facts, or retain long forgotten events. This reference then sets him off on a long voyage into his own personal mnemonic process.

Lights come up, a visual and filmique constructions take on life behind him and suddenly a whole apartment block grows out of the background of his younger life as Lepage begins telling us where he grew up, introducing us his own family. From that moment on we are drawn in to this enchanting narrative where individuals and stories emerge and his whole past life is transformed through magic visuals as the apartment on 887 Murray street appears. Like Gulliver in Lilliput, he walks around the miniature building and takes us through each miniature dwelling introducing us to everyone, as they go about their business inside and speaking of all the succulent scandals that rocked the area. Rapdily, personal memories give way to collective memory and the political climate especially is described illustrated even explained by Lepage who lived through that period beyond 1960 until as a young man he left the city of Quebec and moved to Montreal to study theatre and discover the world. Personal memories are over taken by parallel events of unforgettable collective importance that correspond or collide with his own world because they had such a strong impact on Quebec.

The smooth integration of TV news footage as journalists filmed DeGaule’s famous declaration Vive le Québec Libre and showed how oung people demonstrated against the visit of Queen “Liz” . Filmed footage of the Sunday of the matrack in 1964 against the Royal visit exploded onto TV news for all to see. He emphasized the images of an English language ( ie “white” ) culture as a long film sequence shows francophone ladies chatting in the tea rooms of the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec city. These are often sequences we never saw on the news of the period.

This is an inner journey through all the memories stored away in the deepest recesses of this artist’s mind. And yet he returns with a most intimate portait of a past that seems to have very little place in his work. There is always a certain form of intimity in Lepage’s stagings no matter what human presence is featured but this time he has put himself on stage and something new has emerged. It is an almost humble Lepage who laughs and who looks back on his family with much nostalgia, especially on his father to whom he felt very close. He captures this in several sequences in an all night poorly lit diner where a man wearing a taxidrivers cap comes in alone to have a coffee leaving his parked cab in the street.. It is Lepage’s father sitting at the bar but even though he says nothing, the emotion is very strong.

One could ask oneself to what extent this flight into the most emotional decade of growing nationalism in Quebec featured  here, represents Lepage’s sincere relationship with the province. Perhaps, more than an emotional examination of his own political commitment to his country’s past, this could be exactly what he says it is – an investigation into how memory works, how memories are built and how they connect and then are extracted and brought to life eventually becoming the material upon which history is constructed. Of course Lepage is also a person for whom theatre is his livelihood.. Could one not suppose that he has chosen the TV images and the events that make for the most exciting events on the stage just to please his audiences?

887 leaves us with all these questions. Nonetheless, because it is all based on real life experience, rearranged for artistic purposes, he certainly does give us documents which take us back to that past and if Lepage’s own commitment political or otherwise is not crystal clear, it makes absolutely no difference. He is an artist. He is free to do what he wants. And those two hours were stimulating and thought provoking entertainment of a rare kind. This play should be seen by everyone.

887 plays in the theatre of the NAC at 7h30. English subtitles are available on April 15 to 18.