French-Canadian director Robert Lepage has had international success with his innovative theatre productions that have traveled the globe.
“The experience of wonder no less than that of the sublime makes up part of the aesthetics of rare experiences.”[i]
Winner of a plethora of accolades, prizes, awards and honours, Lepage is a tireless thinker and experimenter in the world of theatre. Lauded in his native province, he has received the Médaille des Officiers de l’Ordre National du Québec (1999), the Prix Denise-Pelletier (2000), the highest distinction awarded by the government of Québec in his field, in addition to the Prix Gascon-Thomas judged by L’École Nationale de Théâtre. International acknowledgement has come with the Prix Hans-Christian-Andersen (2004), the Prix Samuel-de-Champlain awarded by l’Institut France-Canada for furthering French culture, and the Stanislavski Prize for his contribution to international theatre. In 2007, Lepage received the prestigious Prix Europe awarded by the Union des Théatres de l’Europe. These represent only a small portion of the formal tributes that the international theatre community have bestowed upon Lepage.
Though other directors attempt to imitate features of his work, no one has the ability to conceive and execute the ‘new’ as he does. Lepage is fascinated by technological innovation as a means of arriving at a seeming simplicity in stage sets, yet these are born of months, if not years, of complex calculations and the mastery of new materials by his company, Ex Machina, as a means of achieving startling and innovative results. In Lipsynch, Lepage has created an airplane that manipulates into a train, a shop, a family burial vault, and a panoply of other settings through amazing scenographic changes. He strives for ingenuity, not spectacle and achieves feats of technical wizardry that always enhance, rather than overtake, the meaning of the piece.
Lipsynch explores three things: the human voice, words and language. Not only does the work embrace the specific sense of these three notions, but contemplates the interaction between them within human discourse – any series of utterances, a text or conversation. Lipsynch offers a series of dramatic linguistic observations and is an enquiry into the means through which voice, words and language are retrieved and reproduced. The piece is divided into nine sections – one for each of the main characters, whose lives become irretrievably intertwined as the narrative unfolds in all of its complexity. More serious dramatic scenes are interlaced with numerous hilarious, even ribald, scenes with elements of the burlesque. The praxis of Lepage’s work is here evident in his authorial collaboration with the nine principles; the script was crafted through a series of creative meetings of the entire group, who improvise and rework the script constantly until the ‘final’ show is reached.
In pursuit of its ‘study’, the show deals with the international sex-trafficking of minors, the acquisition and the deterioration of language, aphasia, schizophrenia, the retrieval of voice sounds through memory and visual stimuli, the adequacy and inadequacy of the expression of loss through song, the class structure inherent in accents and dialects, incest and murder, among other themes. The cast and text of Lipsynch are multi-lingual, though the show provides unobtrusive surtitles as an aid to comprehension. This focus on intra-lingual and extra-lingual meaning is one of the central explorations of the polysemic issues at work. If this sounds overwhelming, the comedic vies with the thoughtful and sombre in equal measure, and you will always be amazed.
All of the acting is superb, most notably Nuria Garcia, who inhabits so convincingly so many and various roles that it is nearly impossible to know whom she plays in which scene. From a young woman, to a little girl in the schizophrenic imagination of another character, to a prostitute, to a mentally disabled Spanish boy – she seems to be everywhere in the show. The versatility and acting agility she possesses are both astonishing and magical. All the actors play multiple roles, but Nuria is difficult to detect in each scene.
John Cobb, (lipsynching a real-life interview of an elderly woman suffering from short-term memory loss) produces side-splitting laughter as we watch his face on camera. Likewise, as Detective Jackson, he delivers an hilarious, though heartfelt, comic lament on the prejudices ignited by his Scottish accent in London – a diatribe which will resonate among speakers of all languages as they cross borders and boundaries of language and speech, between states and countries. His pent-up frustration at being a ‘foreigner’ in his own ‘nation’ becomes a precursor and cause, in his own analysis, of his perceived personal disenfranchisement in England. The effects of speech for Jackson are all-consuming, as his dialect and pronunciation seem to him to be holding him back at work.
Without reservation, however, the professional voices mark the show out, finally, as a masterpiece. Rebecca Blankenship’s celestial soprano and Rick Miller’s tenor, singing the second Górecki song, are perfectly matched. Equally, Frédérike Bédard’s matchless manipulation of the gamut of sound – as an electric guitar, a beguiling nightclub singer, and the source of an expertly produced sonograph (as a character learning to speak again after surgery) – simply astound the audience. Lipsynch is musically framed by portions of the Polish composer Henryk Mikolaj Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 (also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), a piece chosen by the opera singer Rebecca Blankenship, whose character ‘Ada’ appears first. The orchestral portions of the symphony have been removed, and Blankenship sings the first of three ‘songs’ – one from each of the three movements of the symphony. The second and third songs occur in the middle and at the astounding end of Lipsynch.
Górecki’s symphony (1976), in its entirety, is an evocation of the bonds between a mother and her child. The early symphonic portions are barely audible as it builds its way from low notes (bass) slowly rising (cello, to viola, second and first violin), finally leading, meditatively, to the first song. Though only the songs from the symphony (with surtitles) are included in Lipsynch, the lamentation and anxiety of separation of mother and child are palpably felt through Blankenship’s magnificent solo soprano renditions. Much of the audience visibly shed tears by the end of the show, which features the third and final Polish threnody. Górecki’s composition represented a new modal style and a significant departure from his previous atonal work. He fashioned these songs around simple harmonies using medieval musical modes. This feature, coupled with the emotively charged libretto and Blankenship’s anguished delivery, urges the audience toward a deep and heartfelt connection to the suffering portrayed in many scenes throughout the show.
Górecki chose these three different songs based on the symphony’s dominant themes: motherhood and separation. The first and third songs are written for a parent who has lost a child, the second song from the perspective of a child separated from a parent. The libretto that begins Lipsynch is a song of lamentation from the Polish Holy Cross Monastery, of Mary for her son Jesus, and dates from the second-half of the 15th century. Loss and mourning are its paramount sentiments: ‘My son, my chosen and beloved / ?Share your wounds with your mother / ?And because, dear son, I have always carried you in my heart, / ?And always served you faithfully / ?Speak to your mother, to make her happy,? / Although you are already leaving me, my cherished hope.’?
In sharp contrast, the second song derives from a message inscribed and signed on wall 3, cell 3, in the basement of Gestapo headquarters in Zadopane, by an 18 year-old woman from the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland, imprisoned in 1944 during World War II. It read, simply, ‘Oh, Mama, do not weep – Most Chaste Queen of Heaven support me always. Ave Maria’. This short plea struck Górecki for many reasons:
“In prison, the whole wall was covered with inscriptions screaming out loud: ‘I’m innocent’, ‘Murderers’, ‘Executioners’, ‘Free me’, ‘You have to save me’—it was all so loud, so banal. Adults were writing this, while here it is an eighteen-year-old girl, almost a child. And she is so different. She does not despair, does not cry, does not scream for revenge. She does not think about herself; whether she deserves her fate or not. Instead, she only thinks about her mother: because it is her mother who will experience true despair. This inscription was something extraordinary. And it really fascinated me.”[ii]
And though the Holocaust is not a subject dealt with in Lipsynch, the potency of feeling for the grief the young woman anticipates her mother experiencing is central to the song, and to the show. The child in Lipsynch is a son in this case, though the gender of the child is immaterial to the pain of their loss. The third, and final, song is a Silesian folk song in the dialect of the Opole region. The voice is that of a mother searching in vain for the dead body of her child, killed in the Silesian uprising. All three songs speak of the heart-rending pain which the mother-child bond is capable of producing in separation, both temporary and permanent.
‘Ada’s’ section is entitled ‘Passagio’, a term which denotes the series of 4-5 notes in a singer’s voice in the middle of their range. This term marks the difficult transition point between the voice vibrating in the chest and resonating in the head and defines a singer’s voice category – whether it be alto, mezzo, spinto, soprano, etc. This section of Lipsynch, beyond introducing the character of opera singer ‘Ada’, is a defining beginning that marks out the range of the voice – the central subject of Lipsynch. Rebecca Blankenship, a veteran of Lepage productions (including the play The Seven Streams of the River Ota), is well-placed to define the potential ‘range’ of the voices which we come to investigate throughout the show. Her performance as a singer, in this sense, marks out the focus of what the show will proceed to ponder.
True to its title, Lipsynch locates that ‘beginning’ of the Word, as neuro-surgeon ‘Dr. Thomas Bruckner’ (Hans Piesbergen) indicates that the depiction of God and his retinue in Michelangelo’s fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel replicates exactly the form of the human brain. And that Word becomes God, we are reminded, as Blankenship, in full voice, hands the pietà figure of Jeremy’s dead mother to her adoptive son at the end of the show. Lepage, not usually given to advocacy in his many explorative productions, here nonetheless makes the sacrifice of lives through sex-trafficking approach, if not equal in the contemporary, the sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of a man-kind prone to the lure of this egregious practice.
If you’ve missed performances in England, New York, France, Spain and Moscow, try for Vienna (May 12, 13, 15, 16), Naples (May 29 & 30), Taipei (August 24, 25, 26, 28) and more. Lepage’s staging of Wagner’s Ring begins at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in September. I have no doubt that it will be the Ring of the 21st century.
Lipsynch is a 9-hour show (with many breaks for refreshment and meals) and the time goes by unnoticed, so enthralled will you be. Every show has deserved the standing ovation it received, and the praise it has garnered. Lepage productions are for those who both love and hate theatre. Spend a day with Lipsynch. Challenge your thinking. Experience wonderment. You may come away speechless!
[i] Fisher, Philip. Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (Harvard University Press. 1998) 1.
[ii] Górecki, Henryk Mikolaj. “Remarks on Performing the Third Symphony” Polish Music Journal 6:2 Winter 2003.
*Dr. Cynthia Scott Stamy* is the author of Marianne Moore and China: Orientalism and A Writing of America, and is currently working on a novel.