ROBERT LEPAGE LOOKING FOR THE RHYTHM OF THE NIGHT: LEPAGE’S COEURS (HEARTS1), THE NECESSARY FAULKNERIAN GOTHIC, AND LOOKING FOR COMMON GROUNDS
Robert Lepage& Exmachina – “Coeurs” at TOHU Theatre Feb 18- Feb 28 2015
This is the rhythm of the night
The night, oh yeah
The rhythm of the night
This is the rhythm of my life
My life, oh yeah
The rhythm of my life (Lyrics to the song The Rhythm of the Night by Corona)
“When the dusk heightens, like the amber on a stage set, those ramshackle hoardings of wood and rusting iron which circle our cities, a theatrical sorrow rises with it, for the glare, like the aura from an old fashioned brass lamp, is like a childhood signal to come home.” What the Twilight Says, Derek Walcott
The first thing one notices when one enters Montreal’s TOHU and its impressive theater space http://tohu.ca/en/season/spectacle/2014-2015/jeux-de-cartes-coeur/ is a kind of monument. That monument is the circular stage, set in a kind of amber glare,like in Derek Walcott’s quote above.This circular stage stage whiffs first of being intemporal2 and monumental http://www.amazon.com/La-métamorphose-dieux-3-LIntemporel/dp/2070108619 , and whiffs of being a machine like beast that will either wrest the audience into dizzying submission coupled with the spectacle to be presented, or whiffs like a stage that may remain just the machine-like beast it is, standing immobile in all its queer rustic like beauty, while the show, not that noticed nor transformative might go on.
With Quebec contemporary theatre icon Robert Lepage’s latest production Coeurs (Hearts), the second in a series of plays,we were left somewhere between the former and latter – the former being that Coeurs was a fabulous spectacle that of course beguiled and was noticed, and the latter – that it was a piece of theater that simply remained, as the French say, inachevé, not complete nor completely transformative. And yes the point may be that not every theatre piece need be transformative nor life changing, but yes at least evocative, which Lepage’s Coeurs certainly was. But yes, of course, with Lepage, this (sense of a transformative theatre experience) is what many here in Quebec have come to expect.
In entering Lepage’s Coeurs, we are, as previously said, first and foremost beholden and greeted by this circular stage, reminiscent of the 6th century Roman Circus Maximus, which in its heyday seated over 380 000 spectators. Lepage’s theatre group Ex Machina is resident at this theatre facility. As Robert Lepage says of a circular stage for gathering as opposed to what has come to be accepted as the imposed rectangle to view theatre:
“In the 20 th century, theater began to imitate cinema more and more…We have gotten distant from the idea of gathering, that enriches the theatrical experience…The presentation/ creation in a circle permits us to recreate that feeling. “ (my transl)
And further, in entering the theatre space, one is also struck by massive impressive clock- like contraptions above, mirroring the stage, giving the stage and these contraptions the feel of a literal time machine or suction cup one felt one was entering. The whole impressive stagecraft ensemble and theatre hall might have felt like an intemporal “stone room of black and ancient lakes”. And in a previous incarnations of Lepage’s work3, one might have also expected to find in such a “a stone room of black and ancient lakes”, an alabaster translucent creature raising “ its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared (ing) into the light.” 4
This was not case in Lepage’s Coeurs where he dives into a piece whose transhistorical world, merits and aims to engage with contemporary geopolitics were to be applauded. But, despite the deployment of a successful dramaturgy (but perhaps not dialogue), Lepage’s Coeurs fell short of diving us full fledged into transformative dark imaginary that might reveal to us something new or revelatory about our contemporary “clash of civilizations” and geopolitical games, or reveal to us something new or revelatory about the present contemporary rhythm of the night.
Looking for Common Grounds
Coeurs begins with Jean-Eugene Robert- Houdin, the father of modern magic sent by the French government to Algeria in the 1800s to quell the power of the local religion/ marabouts priests. As the story goes, Houdin performed a very impressive sleight of hand that up handed the power of a marabouts he challenged. Houdin was able to stop a bullet with an apple and have it not pierce past the apple into his chest. Houdin’s aura grew and the power of the marabouts faded, it is said. Lepage starts with this classic geopolitical charade game. Such charade games like the story of the sale of Manhattan for 24$ to the Dutch by the Lenape and many others as one might see like in the Herman Melville’s Confidence Man.Lepage equates these sort of stories in his Coeurs and previous Piques with the dissimulation one might find in card games:
“Card games carry with them a system/ ensemble of rules, signs, mathematical or numerological structures, of mythologies, and especially of characters. In combining these and ordering them, we can create as many histories as there are agencies possible. Card games incited to explore different aspects of linked to gambling, but also of temporality, chance, probability, and divination.”
So with such panoply of options through this throw of the cards, as it were, the story then moves us to present time Quebec where the Quebec born/ Algerian descent taxi driver Chaffik and Québecoise Cinema Studies teacher, Judith, fall in love. Coeurs then moves back and forth through these contemporary and past narrative/s, like the deck of cards being shuffled and dealt.
Lepage wants to display Algerian historiography, some underpinnings of our present “clash of civilizations”, and the story of how Chaffik’s family game to be in Montreal from Algeria. Of course, the formerly Quebec based Lebanese writer Wajdhi Mouwad has been deploying such a transhistorical approach for some years.
With – the young Algerian descent taxi driver – Chaffik, his dedicated hard working Algerian father, his boisterous Algerian grandmother, the smart/ eager/liberal Québecoise- Judith, her racist Québecoise mother, her stiff hegemonic “Australian” dad, the scientific Jean- Eugene Robert- Houdin, and his boisterous drunk wife – Lepage offers us stock characters: types that unfortunately often do not go past their cardboard cutting and the “stockness” of their characters. We don’t often enter into the deep “who” of these characters. And, in such a narrative of interpersonal matching and shadowing, in such a narrative of transhistorical join the dots, this is essential. If one looks to Faulknerian gothic which can certainly be taken as the 20th century example par excellence of how to deal with nation, family (join the dots), inveteracy, love/ hate, and secret family skeletons, in Lepage’s Coeurs there were not enough of those silences and shadows that tell more than a direct dialogue ever can. At many dream-like points, Lepage employed the most beautiful hypnotic imagery of a single character making continuous circles, walking non stop around the circular stage to show the passage between past and present historical narratives. These dervish like circles started to give us the hypnotic suggestion we needed to move beyond present and past realities and project a new sense of contemporary citizenship onto past tragedies and project something new onto our own rhythms of the night.5
I do wish Lepage would have employed more of these sort of silent ritualistic cues like the continuous circles6, rather than for instance the racist mom and dad spouting out ridiculously about their proto-son in law (Chaffik’s) terrorist leanings. One gets the point Lepage is making: Let us collectively in a theater piece see how ridiculous their racism is. But, at a certain point, one wonders about how more useful it would perhaps be to get into the head of such racists and understand exactly what is behind their false consciousness’ brawn and not brains. We remained distant from these characters (the racist mother and father) except as outsiders to their own personal (racial) hallucinations.
Of course, Lepage illustrated very well Chaffik’s journey to find his lost Algerian grandfather but this serious journey could not mesh well with the other stories whose deep interiorities were not always illustrated as cleanly. Judith’s decision to turn to Islam and wear a hijab and her parents (formerly excommunicating her) sudden acceptance of Judith, her miscegenation and Chaffik’s grandmother as a roommate seem too tidy. But it certainly is the ending we hope for, in a multicultural society, when we are looking for common grounds in our contemporary society profusely decorated with these realities. How one lives with the Other and Other histories? It is especially Coeur’s denouement of this and its stories which is being called into question. And of course one doe shave to ask if Lepage could join the points, more often in silent coalescing assemblages rather than through the the phatic realities of everyday words.
With brilliant stagecraft which moved with incredible bravado and sleight of hand, like the unfolding of a butterfly’s wings- slight, translucent, effervescent, effective- conveying the magic of moving through the ages from colonial Algeria to contemporary Quebec: Lepage’s stage would be at once a dinner Quebec and switch back through hidden levers and actions simply going into slits into the stage and other appearing, to then be a dinner in colonial Algeria.
But despite all this- the total-story of the play did not hold its own to develop the true cohesiveness that could entrance. Yes an awareness might have grown in audience members about how they/ we treat Others and Other histories, but what might be additionally interesting in future installments of Lepage’s trilogy or quad are characters deep explorations of necessary self questioning and sense of complicity that we should all feel when faced with History’s large questions and stories, which with present media’s daily unveilings we can no longer hide behind.
The true machinations of all characters’ personal individuations and not simply glosses
The Rhythm Of The Night
In one of contemporary“scenography’s” greatest scenes (of the last 20 years) of complicity, individuation, interiority, and colonial history – film director Claire Denis employs an unexpected dance to finish her film. French actor Denis Lavant dances seriously to the otherwise not so serious global pop sensation The Rhythm Of The Night.
Lavant’s character Galoup , the commander’s former bulldog, is now ostracized from his life long community in the Foreign Legionnaires, after the commander chooses another young man to lead. All the hubris and empty bubble hidden by hubris is burst and Galoup has nothing left. Not only is their a deconstruction of the empty shell of Western “power” and military life, but this character’s own opinions are burst. Denis’ film masterfully illustrates the “necessary” unpacking of Western gaze and hubris so necessary at this time. I was reminded of Lepage’s characters who played Judith’s father and mother: their own need to come clean. Lepage’s play ends and we still do not see the necessary dance7 of these characters – their own revelation/ realization. This is what I would have like to have seen in Judith’s “racist” mother and father – them naked and set before the very emptiness they were hiding behind- their complicity, individuation, interiority. It is not just the Other (as Lepage does represent with Chaffik) that we must give space to, in examining contemporary representations, but we must also give space to examine what is going on inside the head of those who ruthlessly dominate the scene, those in positions of “power”8. The complete revelation of all parties is so necessary to begin to understand the contemporary rhythm of our night: acknowledging all our complicities and finding the key to common grounds (of transparency). The such would not just be theatre which is historical but be a theater of history. And is only there, as Robert Lepage suggests from his analogy of cards that “we can create as many histories as there are agencies possible”.
1 The play is part of an ongoing trilogy or “quad” of plays, so far based on cards.
2 The round stage and hall/ theatre looks wooden and gives the feel of an early twentieth century circus. In actuality, it is one of the most technologically sophisticated stages in North America built by the Cirque de Soleil.
3 Of course despite what some critics referred to as Lepage’s traditional approach to Wagner’s Rings, Lepage’s attempts at technological innovation cannot be denied. The question regarding the various criticism of his Wagner’s Rings in 2012 was whether many critics unnecessarily heavy handed? http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/05/07/152183689/wagners-dream-is-it-the-mets-nightmare
4 This scene from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road came to mind while being in TOHU’s cavernous theatre: imagistic, shadowy, silent, and intemporal.
5 I am thinking of Faulkner’s first few pages in his Absalom Absalom. Also to be noted, the filmmaker Claire Denis has been playing with new kinds of psychical impositions onto past histories since her earliest films.
6 The circles start to look like the American artist Richard Serra’s beautiful circle drawings or Joan Jonas’ performances with circles.
7Very well written article on the Claire Denis scene by Julie de Lorimier, “De La Danse Comme Révélateur- Denis Lavant Dans Beau Travail”, in 24 Images June/ July 2014.
8 See also Claire Denis’s L’Intrus.