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THE VISUAL LABORATORY OF
ROBERT LEPAGE

By Ludovic Fouquet. (Trans. Rhonda Mullins)

Talonbooks

401 pages, $29.95

ISBN: 978-0-88922-774-3

Ludovic Fouquet opens his detailed study of Robert Lepage’s theatre with a list of described images:

            a man conversing on the phone while sitting on a bed, and the stage opening
            sideways to reveal another part of the bedroom;

            a front-load washing machine transforming into a goldfish bowl when a video
            image of” a swimming fish is projected onto a windowed door,” and then the
            space opening like “the portal of a space capsule” through which the actor climbs;

            a TV screen spinning around, blinding the audience, but when it turns back to the
            actor, he has turned into “an old woman asleep in a wheelchair”;

            “a mirror inclines and the actor takes flight, pirouettes, and disappears.”

All these images are from Lepage’s solo show The Far Side of the Moon (2000), and they contribute to the director’s reputation as “a magician of images.” Foquet underlines the fact (he does an inordinate amount of such underlining) that Lepage’s projects have been built around “a specific idea of the stage, fostering a wide range of distinctive effects, from the stage box, to the puppet theatre, to the screen.” In this way, Lepage develops his enticing theatrical language, “a visual, sound-based, musical, and only incidentally text-based language.” And this is why, argues Fouquet, that Lepage’s dramatic universe “must be approached from the point of view that stage design is a visual laboratory and the theatrical image is its apparatus.”

This contention seems sensible at first, but a closer look at the postulates raises some unsettling questions for those who are not simply Lepage devotees. For one thing, Fouquet’s imperial imperative (“must be approached”) is an academic decree rather than an intellectual lure. Second, a laboratory, visual or otherwise, implies scientific experimentation and measurement rather than artistic risk, and imagery is surely only more than apparatus. My objections to Fouquet’s tone grow more intense the more I read into his scholarly book that is inarguably important to the field of imagistic theatre. But before I expand my criticism, I shall acknowledge the book’s merits. This English-language translation comes eight years after the original French text, and it will undoubtedly appeal to artists, teachers, and students who wish to understand and draw inspiration from Lepage’s theatrical creativity. Its notes, chronology of productions, bibliography, and index observe academic propriety, and its text makes it amply clear that Fouquet is steeped in multimedia and knowledge about stage imagery. Moreover, the generous amount of black and white photographs of sets, design sketches, stage models, costumes, and actors is of real benefit to scholars and general readers. Every Lepage production seems to have been covered till 2014, and Fouquet is detailed to a fault, with virtually no visual effect going unexplained.

Structured in four parts and an epilogue, the book covers wide areas, ranging from two models (puppets/objects and the cube) in the visual laboratory to technological echoes (light and shadow, mirror, photography, cinema, video, digitalization, sound).  He notes other experiments (such as orientalism and the baroque), as well as the lure of geometry (cubes, mills,  circles) and continuing collective creation, and concludes with some discussion of Lepage’s forays into opera. There are many splendid instances of explication, such as his explanation of how objects populate Lepage’s stage space, and how suitcases, backpacks, duffle bags, shoes, glass balls, small baskets, dolls, cigarettes, lighters, screens, mats, mirrors, cameras, microphones, and puppets provide references to our mundane world while resonating as emblems of other things. Fouquet argues that this image-based theatre is primarily “a theatre of perception,” and that Lepage’s world is based on “an architectonic view of the  stage,” with the overall shape of a piece changing through sequential combinations of elements such as lighting, video, film, photography, geometry, and sound. But such a view opens itself to challenges. Is this plenitude of elements and effects an enrichment or a confusion of aesthetic realms? How important, for example is it to see the front and back of an actor simultaneously? How does such visual wizardry illuminate character or text? Fouquet never pauses to raise these questions in the course of his breathless excitement, much less answer them.

When he celebrates Lepage’s ability to use video to divide the stage into different facets of the same reality that expresses the “visual architecture” of a story, he alludes to the film The Boston Strangler that exploited the split-screen technique, but without ever considering whether such an effect divides the viewer’s gaze and frustrates the focus. Sometimes he is clearly unaware that his sweeping praise is freighted with ironies that undercut his claims--as when he shows how objects and actors share the stage. With Lepage, the actor is encouraged to become a co-author during the production process, and is invited to participate in story development, but the actor does not seem to recognize that he is dwarfed by technology or so immersed in the image that he becomes its prisoner. Strangely, Fouquet does articulate this latter point himself, making it sound like a virtue rather than a flaw.

I recognize that all theatre is not text-based and that there is unquestionable beauty, ineffable mystery, and layered richness in Lepage’s best productions. Fouquet is justified in praising the set for The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994) for its interchangeable, mobile, transparent screens, or Lepage’s ingenious use of an inclining set in Elsinore (1995), or the director’s idea of a film-within-a-film in Polygraphe (1987), echoing Lepage’s demand that theatre speak a contemporary language, and above all, a visual one. Fouquet is also excellent in showing how Lepage dramatizes technology. But his scholarship is repeatedly extravagant but lacking in critical depth. For example, he never considers whether technology remains cold, whether in being its own message it doesn’t necessarily add or extend meaning. While glowing with praise for the stage design of The Tempest (2013) and its recreation of the theatre La Scala (Madrid), as if it were a sectional view, he does not demonstrate how this illuminates Shakespeare. He is quite content to accept Lepage as a technician or trickster, even celebrating when Lepage engages the audience by revealing the trick, but isn’t this facility superficial? Or to put it a different way, does not form outshine and swamp content by drawing attention to itself? It would be tantamount to a magician explaining how he performs his tricks or an actor explaining his technique.

Putting aside instances of academic jargon that have the sound of learned lumber, I do appreciate Fouquet’s discussion of Lepage’s calculated use of disorientation via a propensity for the foreign (Japan in The Seven Streams of the River Ota or Eonnagata (2009); Mexico in La Casa Azul (2001)) and an empirical experiencing of culture, just as I value his section on meta-theatre, but he is confusing about Lepage’s baroque and not very useful in his exposition of Lepage’s Shakespearean productions. He and Lepage seem to subscribe to “an aesthetic of the heterogeneous and of saturation,” but neither he nor Lepage engages with the question of baroque over-ornamentation, exaggerated colour, and density of irregular form almost bursting out of a frame or space. Fouquet’s descriptions and analyses do not probe questions of epistemology. Nor do they appear cool-headed. For instance, he does not question Lepage’s deliberate avoidance of the word “theatrical” in the 1990s when the director founded Ex Machina and justified this eschewal by claiming that theatre “is no longer an exclusive concern.” Quebec theatre had already begun to demystify the text and to widen the idea of the creator and of “continued collective exchanges,” but Lepage opted explicitly (Fouquet explains) for “a visual laboratory in which we see both the images and ourselves as audience looking at the image as it echoes to the point that we are drawn into the image’s centre.” But even more than this, “we essentially go into a box and discover the infinite.” Well, irony of ironies: the “deus” has been removed from the machine, or, rather, the “deus” is the machine that enables us to discover the infinite--though neither Lepage nor Foquet could summon up any metaphysic or theology to define this “infinite.”

True, Fouquet does acknowledge some of Lepage’s failures (such as The Dragon’s Trilogy (2003) and Eonnagata (2009), but sounds strangely fuzzy about the reasons for the failures. But worse than this, he fails to recognize some of the implications of his own assertions. After hundreds of pages of gushing praise of Lepage’s image-based productions, he is compelled to recognize the importance of opera libretto in feeding Lepage’s imagination. After reams of description of Lepage’s use of technology, he acknowledges Lepage’s recourse to a simpler mode of presentation in The Nightingale (2009) and The Tempest (2013), without counting on “technological crutches.” The phrase is Lepage’s, and it is extremely revealing. However, Fouquet merely takes him at his word without considering the implications.  Fouquet is also quick to accept other critics’ inflated praise of Lepage without demonstrating critical distance. When he quotes Wagner expert, Georges Nicholson, who praises Lepage for a vision “that Wagner would have wanted,” there is a virtually magisterial assumption that both Nicholson and Lepage actually know what the German composer wanted. This is an intentional fallacy that no real critic should abide. But Fouquet does not stop there: his breathless hero-worship impels him to a virtually apocalyptic conclusion, a sweeping generalization where Lepage’s theatre becomes a laboratory, “making the scientist a storyteller, the researcher an artist, the actor an author, and the singer an acrobat…Everything is upended, but nothing breaks. Or more, everything is upended and everything is transformed, leaving us in wonder, ready to become chemists ourselves.” Fouquet may think that his controlling metaphor is poetic; however, I see it as intrinsically flawed. Theatre can be many things to many people, and there is a strong modern or post-modern inclination to representing theatre as a laboratory of some kind, and there is no question that the best productions often have a magical alchemy. However, how does such a metaphor turn the spectator into a chemist, especially if the formulae and apparatus are controlled by the director as auteur?

So, while this book is of unquestionable value to theatre scholars and Lepage devotees, its intrinsic limitations (repetitions, dreary minutiae, and almost breathless praise) work against its being more than a formidable championing performance. Academics will love it, while critical general readers might not share this love to the same extent.

 


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