Stage breaks the sound barrier

September 14, 2008, Susannah Clapp

Robert Lepage switches from visual explosions to aural, producing a dazzling nine-hour epic for the ear

The French Canadian wizard Robert Lepage has turned laundrettes into space capsules, babies into cosmonauts, and revealed Hans Christian Andersen as a sexual fantasist. Weird convergences and strange conversions are his stage currency. In his latest metaphysical kaleidoscope the director-playwright goes further. Celebrated for gliding from one visual explosion to another, he now switches his attention from the eye to the ear. He has turned over a new Lepage.

There are dazzling images in the intertwined stories that make up Lipsynch but it is sound that is the motor of this nine-hour (including tea and pee breaks) epic. The preface is a static auditory thrill: a Gorecki hymn from mother to son, Madonna to Christ. A highly charged opening scene is wordless but not silent. In a plane over the Atlantic, a young woman dies, with her child crying on her lap. You see a face lit up like a portrait in a private view, then a row of passengers in silhouette, settling themselves, chatting, snoozing. Seatbelts clink, a baby wails: nothing is explained; yet it’s clear what has happened: the news ripples noiselessly down the aisle.

That baby’s life is one of the sonic threads of Lipsynch. You hear him as a compliant youth, taught by his adoptive mother, a singer, to project the musical line: she, being German, instructs him to ‘smear it like one long sausage’. You listen to the sulky tick of his iPod on the tube, as the action shoots exhilaratingly through London. As an adult he makes a movie about the inadequacy of speech and searches for his mother’s family, whose language (Spanish) is not his own.

Wound in with his history is that of a whore whose brother disguises himself by poshing up his vowels: he becomes the voice of British Rail and specialises in announcements of delays (when he tops himself on the tracks he becomes the cause of cancellation). And the story of the jazz singer, who, told she has a tumour that will render her speechless, delivers an unforgettable interpretation of ‘April in Paris’, rocketing from smooch to gasp to keening screech. The singer’s sister, who has a history of mental disturbance, is seen, sealed from all sound, at work in a bookshop, at the centre of a blizzard. The snowflakes are so bright against the blackness that they seem fluorescent: this noiseless beauty looks like the picture of a brainstorm.

There are speeches which fall - literally - on deaf ears. There is a magnificent episode which projects the struggle of a loquacious speech-therapist who is losing the ability to talk: both determined and vague, her jaw juts and sags as she (played by a man with Coco the Clown hair) sends her mouth in search of elusive words. There is rap in a Quebec bookshop, rock on a college stage and lullaby in a stranger’s house. There is the moment when noise is turned into visual effect: a singer performs and sonic waves appear on a screen; as her voice is doubled and tripled, the jumping graphs blot and thicken. A chorus ends up looking like the pattern on a Peruvian rug.

It is the aural variety that makes Lipsynch exceptional. The stage is tentative in its use of sound: creators of soundscapes (for Lipsynch, Jean-Sébastien Côté) get little of the fêting accorded to set designers. Yet even in the age of Facebook, the notion of identity is still expressed by the idea of finding a voice. Lepage’s stories of loss and displacement brilliantly focus on this.

There are lulls and dips as Lipsynch moves over three continents, four generations, romance, farce and tragedy. A satire on the movie industry is unsurprising; a farting corpse outstays its welcome. It would be sleeker and more choate if cut by a third. But not necessarily richer.

The great roll of the thing, its bumping into different humours, is tremendous. And it doesn’t come at the price of craft. Look at the moment when a doctor is persuaded to think, against his scientific judgment, about the possibility of an afterlife. As he begins to brood on the question, the action on stage is mirrored on video: in one scintillation the audience is moved, intellectually and physically, into another dimension.

Listen to the moment when sounds - the thwack of a kiss, the swish of fabric - are dubbed on to a silent film: suddenly, sight looks puny without sound. Lepage has for years given his audience new eyes; now he gives them new ears.