887 review – touching, intimate, powerful

August 23, 2015, Clare Brennan, The Observer

Robert Lepage invites us into his childhood home and life in Quebec via an on-stage memory palace of dazzling shifting perspectives

Memory and forgetfulness – how do we combine them as we make, remake and unmake our personal and collective histories? 887 is the number of the apartment block on Murray Avenue, Quebec City, where a taxi driver lived with his wife, three children and, for a while, his mother, who had Alzheimer’s. Robert Lepage is his youngest child, also performer, director, designer and writer of this solo show. He speaks directly to the audience, telling us what happened when the organisers of a commemoration of an important 1970 event in Montreal’s artistic and political history asked him if he would recite a significant poem by heart. Having agreed, he found he could not learn it – the poem would not stick. How to remember? He tries an ancient method – the memory palace: think of a place you know well, assign to areas within it those things you want to recall. This subtly develops into an exploration of what makes a life worthwhile, a society worth living in.

The stage becomes the site of memory. Lepage (assisted by an offstage team) adroitly manipulates scale replicas and actual-sized sets, representing private and public spaces: the facade of his apartment block, like a giant doll’s house, opens windows on to family lives; Quebec’s Parc des Braves appears, laid out on a table wheeled against a pictured cityscape; a taxi driver drinks Coca-Cola in a 1960s diner; Lepage studies the poem in his 2010s kitchen. Is he memorising the lines, or his own life, or the life of his country and the lines that connect them?

Lepage dazzlingly creates shifting perspectives to conjure his unique private-public memoryscape. A bunk bed transforms into a make-believe theatre. An inch-high crowd cheers a model Charles de Gaulle in a toy Lincoln as it passes through the model park; Lepage captures the scene on a mobile phone held against the vehicle’s side; plastic arms and faces grow huge when projected on to a screen. The figure of Lepage himself is the one constant – alone yet meshed into the expanding grid of stories describing people whose lives are never presented as small.

News of a family death brackets the climactic recital of the poem: Speak White by Michèle Lalonde. The title recalls a command barked on North American plantations (forbidding the enslaved to speak any language incomprehensible to the bosses) and subsequently snapped at francophone Canadians (insisting they speak English and remember who was in charge). Only a man as humble as his father has the right to speak this poem, says Lepage, before delivering it with blazing intensity. This unostentatious, meticulously crafted two-hour performance is touching, intimate, powerful.