4 stars ****
Edinburgh International Conference Centre
THE GREAT CANADIAN theatre-maker Robert Lepage was born in Quebec City in 1957; so that his childhood coincided almost exactly with the “quiet revolution” that swept through the Canadian province in the 1960’s, as its French-speaking people – mainly working and lower-middle class – began to rebel against the high-handed English-speaking majority who had, until then, completely dominated Canadian public life.
The artist who emerged from that experience was – perhaps inevitably – a post-modernist par excellence, his work a rich imaginative collage of memory, history and cultural references drawn from popular genres like soap opera, as well as from the great canon of literature. And one of his aims, it seems, was – and still is – to shake up the elements of late 20th century cultural experience, and re-arrange them, like a Canadian John Byrne, in a pattern that questions traditional assumptions about which cultures are central, and which are peripheral.
Nowhere has he approached that theme in more personal terms, though, than in his exquisite new show 887, which has its European premiere in Edinburgh this week. 887 is the number of the house in avenue Murray, Quebec City, where Lepage spent his childhood; an apartment-block a little too expensive for Lepage’s parents and their growing family, but – Lepage argues – strongly representative of Quebec society at the time.
So for two hours, alone on stage – but backed by a nine-strong team of techncians, some powerful archive images, and an exquisite small revolving set built around a miniature facade of the 887 building – Lepage tells the interlocking tales of his childhood, dominated by his taxi-driver father’s gruelling work schedule and the increasing confusion of his ageing grandmother, and of his life in Quebec today, amusingly shaped by the usual artistic anxieties about achievement and legacy, and by one particular problem, involving his apparent inability to memorise, for an anniversary gala, Michele Lalonde’s great 1968 poem Speak White, one of the iconic works of Quebec’s quiet revolution.
The effect of the show is diffuse at first, modest, relaxed in pace, slow-burning. Yet by the end, it blazes with a sense of history, and of profound political context filtered through the intensely personal, that sums up the essence of Lepage’s work. And when finally, in a stunning exhibition of his full power as a performer, he sings out the last line of Lalonde’s great poem – “we know that we are not alone” – there is a tangible impulse, among the audience, to leap to their feet and cheer, celebrating the ever-evolving, intimate relationship between Scotland and Quebec; even though the show, with its quiet coda about Lepage’s complex love for his anti-nationalist father, is not quite over yet.
Until 23 August
EIF p. 15