Theatremaker Robert Lepage’s shows have dazzled a global audience. As a performer, designer, director and writer, he has created profound theatrical explorations of history and the tiny humans swept up within it. From Francophone Canada, Lepage and his company, Ex Machina, create works that fearlessly embrace a relentless diversity of performance and design styles. Puppets and dolls, transforming sets, models, cameras and projection and moving parts synergise with moments of stage naturalism, filmic drama, kabuki, dance, poetry or anything else in service to Lepage’s unique dramatic vision.
So great is his influence and impressive his work that when our interview begins, the professional facade of this interviewer – trained in theatre and hence overwhelmed by his contributions to it – crumbles like a breakfast pastry. This year he is bringing his 2000 show, The Far Side of the Moon, to Adelaide festival, but I am barely recovered from his 887, which he brought to the Melbourne festival in 2016.
Like The Far Side of the Moon, 887 also deals with the effects of history as told through the experience of family. In 887, it’s Lepage’s own working-class clan, squashed into the confines of a flat that’s too small for them, who are immersed in the drama of nationalism and class consciousness as the political tensions of Canada’s oppressed Québécois simmer and explode around them. For all the Canadian specificity of the story, though, a single image depicted on stage of Lepage’s hard-working father – exhausted, isolated and denied any realm for expressing emotions that churn at his heart – was too similar to my own. Amid the middle-class audience of the Melbourne festival, I was transformed into a bereaved child and sobbed like one. Loudly.
I confess this to Lepage, and the great man – on the phone from Berlin – responds with kindness. Families, of course, are a universal emotional template to explore. “I’m trying to tell history with a capital H through histories with a small h,” he explains. “It moves people, because you know in your own personal relationships, your own story, there’s an echo to a much larger reality.”
That historical reality is Lepage’s terrain in The Far Side of the Moon, for which the cold war space race between the Soviets and the United States is played out in the fraught relationship between two brothers. “The space race was the unofficial competition between the two parts of the world,” he says, a “subtle and complex” escalation of events and engagements that provoked cultural and scientific discoveries, transforming humanity’s perspective of itself. It also facilitated something of a symbolic detente between the polarised superpowers, when astronauts and cosmonauts made a space rendezvous.
“What led to that,” says Lepage, “and how you could go from completely opposite worlds to find a gesture of reconciliation – it’s cold historical information, and even though it interests me, I have to find a way to relate to it in a more emotional way.” Hence the story of sibling rivalry. Unlike 887, he says, The Far Side of the Moon is less “exposing”: “I disguise the character, myself, as two different brothers. I remember how the communist and capitalist world was divided by a wall – I’m sitting where the Brandenburg Gate is, now, where that wall was … and as a child I would share a room with my brother, Dave, and there was a wall there, too. There was a bookshelf that divided the room in two, so I would stay on my side.”
The divisions were more than material. “He was much older than I was,” says Lepage. “I was brought up as a Francophone, and he went to an English school, so there was always that divide. I admired him infinitely, but there was this clash and this wall.”
How to break down walls of language, of cultural division at close quarters, of tensions within families, could not, of course, be a conversation more timely. In Lepage’s own life, he’s watched a border between Canada and the United States which once “you didn’t need a passport to cross” start to solidify. The political pendulum that has swayed to support Canadian liberalism and creativity under Trudeau has, of course, swung the other way south of the border. “Trump is accusing Canada of being the source of all evils,” he tells me, “Because of Medicaid and our social programs, we’re used a lot as the bad sheep.”
He then posits a theatrical idea to stage some kind of Martian invasion, obliging earthlings to unite against a common enemy. “A kooky comparison and that’s how I feel,” he says. Lepage confesses he left walls behind him as his knowledge of the world expanded. He left drama school, he says, as a Francophone “political being – a separatist and nationalist”. “And then I was touring the world, and started to feel really … Canadian,” he chuckles. “When countries … become preoccupied by their own national realities, the best way to learn you who really are is to do the opposite – to break walls and open doors.”
It’s the visual of pushing open a doorway – between our understanding of ourselves, our experience of family and our relationship to history – that inspired The Far Side of the Moon. How the family itself can represent history, the galaxy, the world became apparent when Lepage discovered a discarded washing machine door amid some garbage.
“And I thought it was beautiful because it looked like a portal – a space object,” Lepage says. “I thought ‘this is a starting point’. How the everyday act of going to the laundry with your mother can be the space race with Russia.”