Almost a year after “887” premiered in Toronto in July 2015, and following five-star reviews at every stop on a multinational tour that took in the world’s biggest annual theater event, the Edinburgh International Festival, the latest play by Robert Lepage — the Canadian famously dubbed “an alchemist of modern imagistic theater” — is now set to draw Japanese audiences into its worlds.
With its title echoing the number of the cramped apartment in the French-speaking city of Quebec where 58-year-old Lepage grew up with his hero, his taxi-driver father, as well as his mother, brother, two sisters and a grandmother stricken with Alzheimer’s, “887” is a solo autobiographical work in which its creator plays himself.
Highly kinetic in trademark Lepage style, the play — which I saw in Edinburgh, and which is being staged here with Japanese subtitles — comprises scenes that switch and morph between his present hectic life and his 1960s and ’70s youth when the province of Quebec was riven by its so-called Quiet Revolution, a movement pursuing independence from, and economic parity with, English-speaking Canada.
In a recent Skype interview we had together, the playwright, actor, film and stage director — and designer for the world-famous French-Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil — talked about this new work, saying, “First, I wanted to review Quebec people’s collective memory with this play because, even though the Quiet Revolution was a very important phenomenon culturally and politically for us, many young Quebecois don’t really know about that — and many older ones tend to put the memory out of their minds.”
Wondering why people tend to remember some small things forever, yet forget about important matters, Lepage said that to revive his audiences’ memories of societal events in their own lives, he’d intentionally chosen to make his personal family history a talking point. That, he said, was a more natural and effective trigger in drama than just expounding about politics in a loud voice. “Also, to make my memory stories more easily visualized by audiences, I specially used a trick of gauge, or size, this time,” he continued.
“So, for example, if I’m dealing with my own private episodes, I use miniature cars and doll models and miniature georamas — but I use big onscreen images or scenery shots while talking about some social events. In the same way, I use miniature-sized props for episodes from my past and bigger-sized sets for present-day scenes.”
A frequent visitor to Japan, Lepage said he got some of those ideas from the fine displays at a folk-history museum in Osaka.
Meanwhile, another of the labels his work attracts — “Lepage magic” — is evident through such phenomena as a body-high apartment block that instantly changes into a model of his present-day kitchen. Then there’s the toy Lincoln car fitted with a mini-camera that films model crowds lining miniature replica streets as a screen behind shows images of Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s parade through Quebec City during the historic visit by the president of France — a strong supporter of French-Canadian independence — to Montreal Expo in 1967.
“If artists want to deal with universal themes in their work, it’s important they talk about more local matters and episodes,” Lepage said. “They should talk about who they are, what is their cultural root and what’s the meaning of borders in today’s world.
“In this piece I didn’t specifically indicate a connection between the 1960s Quiet Revolution and today’s world terrorism chaos, but that point is left to the audiences. I just hope ‘887,’ which covers that tense period in Canada, will stimulate their imagination.”
In reality, it’s hard to imagine it won’t — or that whatever their future recall of great world events, Lepage’s audiences in Japan won’t long remember their experience of “887.”
“887” runs June 23-26 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre outside JR Ikebukuro Station, then July 2 and 3 at the Ryutopia Theatre in Niigata City Performing Arts Center. For details, call 0570-010-296 or visit www.geigeki.jp.