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Lipsynch and Lepage

Too short. Or anyway not too long. That’s the first thing to be said about Robert Lepage’s nine-hour show Lipsynch at this year’s Sydney Festival. But how’s it done and how can that possibly be?

In The Independent last September Paul Taylor wrote that Lepage has long been regarded as a wunderkind, “but as he coasts into his second half-century, ‘the marvellous boy’ has developed into a deeply mature adult.”

This alas is nonsense. It’s been a long time since a deeply mature adult was last seen anywhere near a theatre. Upstage, downstage, or simply hanging around. Great shows are almost never made by deeply mature adults and Lepage certainly isn’t one of them. For which we can be ambivalently grateful. (This is something we’ll return to later: the immaturity of the incorrigibly outré entails a very shifty moral perspective.)

The reason this nine-hour-long show carries us unresistingly along is because there’s a brilliant showman in charge. It has nothing to do with his political or social gestures. As for the latter, Lepage’s moral vision appears to reflect a damaged soul that may have lost a parent or guardian along the way, and who moreover (since that’s what his audience seemingly wants to hear) must inevitably have been abused as a child. But the fact is it’s not important. With Lepage the show’s the thing.

Momentary fits of sympathy for the world’s neglected end up as mere floats in a passing parade. In the course of this riveting nine-hour variety show sentimentalism is followed by violence; violence segues into brilliant comedy; comedy dissolves into musical sequences of exceptional emotional power thanks to the gifted singer Frédérike Bédard; and barely will her last note have died away than you’ll be offered a virtuoso display of stagecraft so dazzling it’s hard to believe your eyes. The laughs per minute in the Spanish funeral episode alone were worth the price of admission.

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Try sitting through a nine-hour modern movie. It wouldn’t be possible. No matter how wide the screen is, or how hard the director works to pack its empty spaces with eye-catching business, the fact is nine hours would be absolute torture. Intellectual vacuity plus high-decibel FX plus actors celebrated for juvenile mindlessness cannot and will not serious drama make. (By the way, if Tom Stoppard thinks he can pull this sort of thing off a close friend should tell him the awful truth.)

Anyway Robert Lepage is something else. Like in the movies, he too employs wide-screen for his effects — or wide-stage to be more precise — and there’s a stunning example right at the start. We’re inside an aircraft 30,000 feet up. It’s night-time. The lights are low. The few passengers lie back slumbering. But what little action there is will raise the hair on your neck.

The visual image grabs you first. Sliced open so you can see inside it, the long fuselage of the plane runs left to right all the way across the stage. The audience viewpoint is from outside the aircraft — somewhere on the left wingtip maybe. That the cabin is raised above a shadowy stage and placed well back is important: it provides a deliberately distancing effect. It also ensures that the mystery of the darkened interior is sustained and that the passenger who is dead, sitting toward the rear of the cabin holding her baby, cannot be clearly seen.

The novelty of this is striking. Movie realism always puts you inside the body of an aircraft — which means more or less claustrophobically inside — and the story usually exploits this situation. Its incidents have to do with the embarrassments of unwanted intimacy, with bodily discomfort, with the frustrations of flight service and the longueurs of travel.

But Lepage wants none of that. He gives us instead the relaxed spaciousness of an “out of body” experience (with clouds drifting slowly by), the mood only gradually changing when a female passenger is discovered to be a corpse.

Before the evening ends we find the dead woman’s an escapee from a Hamburg brothel; her child will be adopted; and the subsequent career of this foundling provides whatever frail thread joins an exciting variety of people and places around the world. In contrast to the lurid sex-slave scenes that come toward the end, the acting in this opening episode is low-keyed naturalism, with a flight attendant discreetly going about her business in the aisle. It couldn’t be better done.

In his review Paul Taylor usefully summarises a significant theme:

As the title suggests, the show uses as a metaphor the multifarious aspects of sound technology: dubbing into a foreign language; miming; lip-reading; created multi-layered tracks; doing voice-overs; being the tones associated with a particular product; speech therapy for the neurologically damaged; even (though this is given a black twist that strangles the hilarity) the voice that intones, from permutations of many prerecorded possibilities, the reasons why a British Rail train (“object on the line”) has been cancelled.

I’m not quite sure what Taylor means here by a “metaphor”: but any story that draws on the commercially engineered misrepresentations of life we’re surrounded by today unavoidably points to the alienation of those who make a living, by choice or by circumstance, in showbiz, in the media, or in celebrity politics, all of which are becoming orchestrally combined. The inhabitants of this faux world have a weakening hold on reality. As do millions of ordinary citizens, who are deluged night and day by absurd scenarios and unreal characters, who take it all far too seriously and often end up damaged themselves.

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So what’s next for Robert Lepage? His virtuosity is dazzling. Can any other showman do what he does? But then again, is mere virtuosity enough? That question necessarily takes us back to Paul Taylor with his talk about the new deeply mature and adult wunderkind.

About eight hours into Lipsynch we get the Big Flashback that explains it all: the dead woman on the plane at the beginning had been all that was left of a demure Nicaraguan teenager tricked into big city vice (“Innocent country girl ends up on Reeperbahn“). It’s villainous — but mere villainy no longer makes people gasp. So after being sold into sex slavery by her Nicaraguan uncle our deeply mature director rams the point home by having the girl serially raped with blaring music and blazing lighting to the max. As you might imagine, that does make people gasp.

But what’s Lepage’s real attitude? Where does he stand? Is he genuinely concerned about trafficking third world women? Is he sincerely disgusted by what he finds on the Reeperbahn? Or does he delight in sensationalism for its own sake?

The fact is that deep maturity is radically excluded from the seedy underworld of Lepage’s sociological comfort zone. It is noticeable that among the various characters to be seen in a typical cast one is unlikely to find a sympathetic father. Fathers and responsible fatherhood are out. Come to think of it, roughly half of mankind — the half involved not in abusing children but in supporting, raising, and educating them — barely makes an appearance.

But that’s showbiz I guess.

Posted in Theatre.