The latest creation by Robert Lepage has finally come home. It opened a year ago in Quebec. It has since played in Australia France, England , no doubt changing with each new performance because Lepage’s stagings, which continuously absorb new elements, are never really finished but ultimately in a state of permanent process.
I have seen most of Lepage’s works and it appears clear that the Andersen Project displays a level of elegant refinement , a stage esthetics that has been purified to a point of perfection that I have never before seen in his work. Gone are the flashy gimmicks, the spectacular effects ,the accumulation of gasp inducing technical apparatus. This is a work of discrete flowing beauty, that appears to be so flawless, its traces implant themselves insidiously and indelibly in the memory of the spectator.
Frédéric Lapointe, a Quebec songwriter, has been invited by the director of the Palais Garnier, the former opera, before the Opera of the Bastille was built, to adapt a tale by Hans Christian Andersen (La Dryade) for the Paris National Opera. The Quebecois soon learns that they intend to get rid of him because they do not like his writing. As Lapointe works through his adaptation, multiple threads of visual associations, the basis of Lepage’s creative process, become intertwined in his Parisian stay. He travels to England to convince the coproducers that Andersen’s text is actually more than it appears. The character of Andersen takes on a life of its own as questions of sexuality , a familiar theme in Lepage’s work, become a strong undercurrent in this performance, associated with the sexual ambivalence of the director of the Paris Opera , and well as that of Andersen, linked as well to the ‘coming out’ as it were, of the little Dryade who finally dares to leave her chestnut tree and go out into the big city to discover the streets of Paris.
With his sense of play and caustic wit, Lepage ties in references to the current French society, the North African population in the suburbs, the strikes that plague every day life, and a certain paternalism in relation to Quebec . In a final great close up on the screen, Frederic Lapointe tells us that this experience in Paris is probably a good lesson for the Quebecois. We must stop looking for approval from the French for our own cultural activity. He appears to suggest that a certain form of colonial mentality still functions in the Province in relation to the former colonizer. To what extent is Lepage settling accounts for some personal disappointment, is hard to say but he has put his finger on an uneasy truth.
The final images show us a close up of Lepage disappearing in a blast of fire, the end of the dependent artist who will soon rise like the phoenix and find his own creative voice once again.
The criss crossing of parallel themes and images creates a most exciting stage performance as troubled humanity intersects, not because of a particular narrative but because individuals share similar obsessions, similar events in their own lives. As the lives of Hans Christian Andersen incapable of consummating a relationship, the Quebecois writer who is losing his girlfriend and the director of the opera in the process of losing his family coincide with the presence of the young man from the Maghreb who runs a peep show, “ tags” public spaces with his cans of spray paint and wipes up the sordid remains of the sexual misery that the men leave in their wake.
Even a strong erotic moment between Andersen (Lepage) and Jenny Lind represented by a headless mannequin who is slowly but forcefully undressed by the writer, leaves a bitter flavour of failure. This is the woman he loved but could never treat as anyone but his sister. And those moments when he tears off her layers of petticoats and then suddenly buries his eyes in his hands, were much more expressive of the impotence shared by human beings, than any words could possibly tell us.
What we are left with mostly however, is a cascade of images that dissolve gently into each other, showing the shimmering instability of this visual world, as the screens slide back and forth, showing the process of mediation through which the artist’s imagination must inevitably filter. This show dissects Lepage’s own creative process to an extent that I have never seen before.
It all takes place within a rectangular space that resembles a High definition TV screen. The staging is constructed on two planes: first a horizontal one that has Lepage moving across the stage on a Parisian Metro, in a bar, strolling through the Tuileries gardens at the Louvre, walking his dog Fanny., or showing the unspoken activities behind the closed doors of the peep show…in that line up of cubby holes across the stage.
The other plane which produces the most astounding images is the one that runs from the front to the back of the stage, creating a third dimension and allowing the characters to interact with enormous images projected on a huge screen behind them. The men can meet at the Café de la Paix in the middle of Paris against the background of Palais Garnier.
New film techniques capture the gray dissolving countryside that flows by as Lapointe sits on a train hurtling back to Paris, caught in shafts of light and then dissolved into a flashy discotheque where he dances the night away. Or the director of the opera moves through the halls of the Palais Garnier and climbs the elegant staircase up to the theatre as the Dryade, leaves her chestnut tree and visits the downtown shops by night. Sometimes, we see objects taken from the
Hans Christian Andersen Museum transformed into pieces of sculpture, set against a pure white background almost like Holograms; these are personal possessions that have become cultural artifacts under the technological gaze of Lepage .
The Project Andersen is about the artistic process: it is present as a theme and it is revealed by the way the technology operates on the stage. This magnificent fusion of images, poetic associations and refined contemporary technological handicraft is a unique artistic experience that will leave you wanting to see more. The two hours fly by very quickly. The Andersen Project plays in the Theatre of the NAC until April 1, 2006.
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht
The Andersen Project (Le projet Andersen)
Conceived, written, directed and performed by Robert Lepage
With Ex Machina
Set: Jean Le Bourdais
Lighting: Nicolas Marois
Sound Jean-Sebastien Côté
Costumes Catherine Higgins
Props Marie-France Larivière
Images Jacques Collin, Véronique Couturier, David Leclerc
Co produced with theatres from
London, (the Barbican). Paris ((le Festival d’automne), Créteil (Maison des Arts), Ottawa (Centre national des Arts), Montréal (Théâtre du nouveau monde), Québec (théâtre du Trident), the Foundation Hans Christian Andersen 2005, and the Sydney Festival.