I'm fairly certain this was my first encounter with Robert Lepage's work. There was much to admire and it engaged my heart (always an important question for me) more than Simon McBurney's The Encounter. But ultimately this show also falls short of true greatness because of script indiscipline.
Like The Encounter, Lepage's narrative combines two strands. Firstly an exploration of his childhood in Quebec at a time of a rising, and increasingly violent, nationalist movement. Secondly, a request to recite a famous cultural output of that era, Michele Lalonde's poem Speak White at a 40th anniversary celebration of a key cultural evening for that rising nationalism. The poem itself is very powerful, and I was grateful to Lepage for introducing me to it, but much of the rest of that strand of the narrative struck me as self-indulgent, and distracting from the power of the story of Lepage's childhood.
These narratives are supported by an impressively inventive staging (the technical team as with The Encounter produce work of the highest quality). The use of film to bring to life the inhabitants of his childhood apartment block, and the subsequent creation of another house from within a pile of cardboard boxes are especially notable. Lepage also makes effective use of miniature cars and handheld cameras. The show is frequently a joy to look at (though in terms of the conjuring of images within a house Heiner Goebbels did achieve a more remarkable coup in Eraritjaritjaka (Festival 2004)). Lepage's performance is, like McBurney's, a very strong one. His delivery (including the ease with which he moves between languages) is mostly captivating, and, like the staging, goes some way to mitigate the shortcomings of the script. His performance of the Lalonde poem towards the end is electrifying.
But ultimately the show is weakened by issues of structure and script. Lepage makes I think a better justification of his framing device than McBurney did, but I lost interest in his alleged problems with memorising the poem – and the fact that he recites it with no difficulties at the end rather exposes that earlier claim of difficulties as a device on which to hang the rest of the narrative. Lepage also makes an unsatisfactory business of suggesting his theatre work will not be remembered – I'd have had more patience with that line of argument if he'd been more willing to laugh at himself here – that's to say I find it difficult to believe that he won't be remembered for all the problems occasioned by his expensive and reportedly problematic production of Wagner's Ring for the Metropolitan Opera. It finally seemed to me that Lepage could have framed it all much more simply and effectively by beginning with the request to recite the poem, then devoting the whole time to the childhood story, and still ending with the poem as in the version as performed.
Overall, I was glad to have seen this. The staging and performance as with The Encounter were impressive, and Lepage's childhood world affords a fascinating and often moving story. I just wish he'd given the same care and discipline to the script which was applied to the staging.
Housekeeping Note: The Festival has raised the prices for its programmes this year, though the content has not noticeably increased. It was a particular pity in this case that more historical background wasn't provided – though the show itself explains some of the historical events it describes a timeline and a glossary of persons would have been a really helpful addition to the programme. Such things are regularly featured in National Theatre programmes for similar kinds of works. The Festival's editors could usefully learn from them.