Why do we remember the things that we do? Why are seemingly trivial things, for example our very first home phone number or the theme song to Gilligan’s Island, permanently burned on our minds yet more important matters escape us? These are questions that Robert Lepage poses to both the audience and himself in his newest production, 887, which made its Western Canadian premiere at Simon Fraser University’s Fei & Milton Wong Experimental Theatre on February 11.
For his work as a director, playwright, and actor, Lepage has received international acclaim for over three decades of innovative theatre that’s challenged traditional dogmas, particularly through his use of technologies. The search for “home” is a recurring theme in much of his recent pieces, complimented by trademark multimedia landscapes that whisk the audience away on a metaphorical journey.
Written and directed by Lepage, 887 has the artist, for the first time, portraying himself. It begins with Lepage being asked to memorize Michèle Lalonde’s poem “Speak White” for the 40th-anniversary celebration of Montreal’s la nuit de la poésie. For the life of him, Lepage cannot remember a verse and, in an attempt to help himself, he employs an age-old method — the memory palace, where one thinks of a place and allots areas within it to things one wants to recall. As a giant dollhouse swivels onto the stage, our descent into the childhood memories and the mind of Lepage begins.
887 is the number of a cramped apartment on Murray Avenue in Quebec City, where Lepage lived with his parents, three siblings, and, eventually, his Alzheimer’s-suffering grandmother. It’s the 1960s — a tumultuous chapter in Canada’s history that also sees the rise of Quebec’s independence. These politics provide markers for certain circumstances within Lepage’s childhood, combining heritage with personal history.
With contextual asides delivered in almost lecture format, Lepage moves between his youth and present day as he attempts to memorize “Speak White.” He remembers his confusion as the FLQ’s manifesto was read out on live television; he recalls how a neighbour’s late-night piano playing deepened feelings of longing for his father, who worked nights as taxi driver to support the family. As he continues to memorize Lalonde’s poem, he learns that CBC Radio has already prerecorded his obituary and becomes preoccupied with how he, too, will be remembered.
Dollhouses, figurines, scale models, and toy cars are brilliantly utilized to represent private and public spaces, while maintaining a childlike charm. Lepage moves both commandingly and delicately about the stage as he tells his stories both in English and in French, with subtitles projected on an overhead screen for the latter. He doesn’t shy away from expressing his anger towards the class system, first with his rejection from a private school and again when he finally delivers a powerful recitation of “Speak White.”
The two hour performance runs without intermission and quite rightly so. Lepage’s intricate script tells a story that’s as captivating as his use of technology is innovative and 887 need no recess — simple and complex, personal yet sweeping, it flows at an exhilarating pace that is all at once cerebral and emotionally stirring, in a true testament to Lepage’s genius.
Robert Lepage’s 887 plays at SFU Woodwards, in partnership with Théâtre la Seizième, until February 21. More information here.