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Robert Lepage - Michael Morris on An Artistic Life Before 887

The last time Robert Lepage brought a show to Edinburgh International Festival, things didn't really go according to plan. That was back in 1995, when the Quebecois auteur of hi-tech Zen attempted to open Elsinore, his one-man take on Shakespeare's Hamlet, which had to be cancelled following a series of epic technical difficulties. To add insult to injury, at other venues on its international tour Elsinore went off without a hitch.

This included a run at Glasgow's Tramway venue, where Lepage's Tectonic Plates was first shown in Scotland during Glasgow's tenure as European City of Culture in 1990. In terms of scale and ambition, Tectonic Plates was something rarely seen in Glasgow's theatre scene of the time, with Tramway going on to host several more of Lepage's works over the next decade while there was still money and vision enough to do so.

During these years Glasgow could be regarded as Lepage's spiritual home in Scotland, where he and other major theatre directors who brought work to Tramway would inspire a new generation of theatre-makers to create work on an international scale. In Edinburgh, meanwhile, a year before the Elsinore debacle, an early version of his apocalyptic chronicle, The Seven Streams of the River Ota, overran by two hours.

None of which should discourage audiences from welcoming the long overdue return of Lepage to EIF with 887, a new and very personal solo work that gets to the roots of its creator's existence by looking at his childhood growing up in a politically volatile Quebec.

“He's been thinking about it for a very long time,” according to arts producer Michael Morris of Artangel, who, with his Cultural Industry operation, produced much of Lepage's work throughout the 1990s in Glasgow, Edinburgh and beyond. “I know roughly what it's about, but his solo shows are so multi-faceted and so extraordinary, which in part has something to do with Robert's presence onstage, but they're all incredibly personal.”

Morris first worked with Lepage in 1989 when he brought Lepage's then company, Theatre Repere, to London with Polygraph. The same year Morris produced George Wylie's The Paper Boat on the River Clyde as part of that year's Mayfest. It was Lepage and Theatre Repere's production of Tectonic Plates the following year, however, that changed everything.

“The relationship between Robert and Glasgow began with a big splash in 1990 when he was asked by Bob Palmer and Neil Wallace, who were running Tramway, and had brought Peter Brook's Mahabharata to Glasgow, to make a new work. Robert brought in performers from Quebec and Scotland, and through that engagement with Scotland they discovered a lot of shared cultural experiences that came out in the workshops, and which meant a lot.

“Because the show wasn't a touring show, but was rooted in Glasgow, with Robert living there for several months, it said a lot about what was going on there in 1990, and it spoke to people. Tectonic Plates united a lot of visual artists and performance-based artists in Glasgow in a way that hadn't really happened before.”

Morris cites director and designer Stewart Laing, whose production of Paul Bright's Confessions of A Justified Sinner features in this year's EIF theatre programme, as someone who fell under Lepage's spell. “I was talking to Stewart recently and he remembers seeing Tectonic Plates very clearly.”

Morris points to members of the cast who went on to make work of their own, including Emma Davie and John Cobb. Davie founded her own site-specific theatre company, Clanjamfrie, which fused live performance with film, and, after being introduced to film through Channel 4's adaptation of Tectonic Plates, is now a documentary film-maker of note. Cobb co-founded the Northumberland-based Theatre sans Frontieres, who in 2007 collaborated with Lepage and Ex Machina on Lipsynch, a nine-hour epic that opened at the Barbican in 2008 and toured the world for the next four years.

“There was a real legacy that came from Tectonic Plates as well as it acting as a major factor in Glasgow's development as an international cultural city,” Morris says.

Lepage returned to Tramway in 1991 with the already road-tested The Dragon's Trilogy, then after dates at the National Theatre's Cottesloe and Lyttleton spaces in 1992 with Needles and Opium, brought The Seven Streams of the River Ota to Meadowbank Sports Stadium in Edinburgh and Tramway in Glasgow in 1994. By this time Lepage had departed Theatre Repere to set up his own Ex Machina company.

Lepage's Swedish production of Strindberg's A Dreamplay toured to Tramway for the 1995 edition of Mayfest, which also hosted a belated Glasgow run of Needles and Opium at the King's Theatre. With Elsinore touring throughout 1996, Lepage's work didn't appear in Glasgow until 1998 with his production of Mahler's Kindertotenleider. While Morris and Cultural Industry co-produced Lepage's work up until 2011, his last sighting in Glasgow was in 2001 with another solo piece, The Far Side of the Moon.

With Morris devoting more time to Artangel and Lepage and Ex Machina becoming increasingly self-sufficient in an ever-expanding international touring circuit, the two men parted amicably.

“I was winding up Cultural Industry,” says Morris, “and agreed with Robert that he could do it himself. Things had changed since 1982 when I first met him, but it was still a bit of a wrench. My working relationship with Robert lasted twenty-six years, and along with my working relationship with Pina Bausch, which lasted twenty years, it completely changed my life.”

With the European premiere of 887 co-produced by Ex Machina and EIF with a host of international partners, Morris is looking forward to witnessing Lepage's latest work “with huge delight. Robert is one of a handful of extraordinary artists in theatre, and to witness that trajectory over all these years has been a joy. But he's still the same. He's still the nicest man in the world.

While that quality counts for much, Lepage is far more than that.

“I think Robert has a capacity to tell a story in an incredibly engaging way,” says Morris, “and to integrate contemporary culture in a way that expresses something about how people live now. He's very direct in what he does. It's not an intellectual exercise. He uses technology, but in a practical way. It's not there as a firework display, but to help tell a story, and he uses technology in a very simple way.

“Robert understands the difference between theatre and film, and he doesn't like making films very much. They're too much of a fixed thing for him. Once it's done, he can't change it in the way he can with theatre. As an actor as well his capacity for naturalism is very strong, but he's a storyteller who tells his stories through theatre.

“Most importantly of all, his work is never boring. You're always in the moment with him. He has this ability to be in the present in a way that's very childlike, and for an artist that's a great gift.”

887, Edinburgh International Conference Centre, Aug 13-15, 18, 20, 23, 7.30pm; Aug 16, 19, 21-22, 2.30pm.

The Herald, August 13th 2015



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