Barnican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 7 September, 2008

It can be difficult enough explaining Robert Lepage’s theatre pieces of conventional duration: how much more impossible to encapsulate are his gargantuan pieces such as The Seven Streams Of The River Ota and The Dragons’ Trilogy, as they skip across continents and decades to tell the stories of interwoven groups of people. I am confident that with Lipsynch he did not set out to create a nine-hour play (in fact, including intervals, its nine acts have a total playing time of barely six and a half hours); rather, he simply takes as long as it takes to explore each story, character, scene, image, theme.

The piece begins with a teenage mother being found dead on a transatlantic flight. Thus we are introduced to Ada, the opera singer who discovers and later adopts the baby; to Thomas, the medical student staffing the police inquiries desk that Ada calls for news of the infant; and – in a typically wondrous Lepage transformation within a single scene from baby to child to adolescent – to Jeremy, the film-maker he grows up to be. Then there are Marie, a patient of Thomas the now qualified neurosurgeon; Michelle, her schizophrenic bibliophile sister; Jackson, a police inspector who arrives seemingly out of nowhere investigating the death of a voiceover artist; and so on. Locations include Hamburg, London, the Canary Islands, Nicaragua and Lepage’s native Quebec City; a bookshop, an operating theatre, a film lot, a mausoleum, a British car whose automated warning messages are in French and several sound studios of differing kinds.

For this is a Lepage departure: instead of focusing on visual images, he has centred this work on the voice, on speech and on language (which, he notes, are three different things). We hear musical voices, aphasic voices, hallucinated voices; speech synthesized, pitch-shifted, edited digitally and on old-fashioned magnetic tape. We see a scene of film being shot, then overdubbed for voice in both its original version and in translation, and with sound effects being added by Foley artists; we hear railway announcements being built up from a range of pre-recorded phrases; see a lip-reader decode the speech on a silent home movie. (In an unaccustomed broad comic routine, one character’s father persists in “talking” by giving out post-mortem farts.) Music ranges from Joy Division to Gorecki via Bacharach. In one eloquent but wordless scene Marie, trying to recover her speech after her brain operation, undertakes what seem at first to be vocal and breathing exercises but are revealed to be her recording on a laptop computer a brief, multi-tracked musical piece of vocalise.

Which is not to say that the Lepage playfulness and luxuriance of visual image are neglected. A trio of simple wall structures on stage trucks are converted into everything from a movie lot trailer to an aeroplane fuselage. In one beautifully cheeky trompe l’oeil exercise, a Soho jazz bar set is constructed out of odd, disjointed pieces of wood placed around the stage, so that when the scene is projected on to the back wall, the camera is at the precise point where these ingredients seem to become solid tables, chairs and even a piano. (Later, one character gets so drunk he falls through the table.)

And above all, the stories, the people. People such as Sarah and Lupe, two prostitutes in different cities each trying to tell their story, to suppress it, above all to escape it. Stories from film backlot dramas to police procedurals. Stories of human beings living their own lives on an ordinary scale which – pull the camera back – is revealed to be part of a rich panorama. Lepage reacquaints us with the wonder of theatre and also of our own lives.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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