Friday, February 25, 2011

The Blue Dragon

Robert Lepage's 'The Blue Dragon' 
A new theatre to experience; Robert Lepage not only directing but also acting - what could be not to like? Having been blown away by the nine hours of continuous theatre that is Lepage's 'Lipsynch' at the Sydney Festival a few years ago, and seen an amazing Lepage opera production at The Met in New York, I was a fan even without knowing what 'The Blue Dragon' was all about.

First, I get to check out The Barbican, one of London's major entertainment venues, in a cutting-edge area of town. The centre was conceived after the devastation of The Blitz in WWII, but construction didn't begin until 1971. The architecture is considered an example of 'brutalist' (ahh...the '60s!) But the site itself goes waaayyy back - to the Romans, in fact, who first built there. The Barbican was "a populous and ramshackle area...bound to be a victim of all epidemic disorders that swept across the city. The Great Plague killed some 8,000 out of a population of 11,000 and the Great Fire swept as far north as Smithfield. It slowly grew more ruinous and dilapidated and then in the 20th century was destroyed by German bombs in the Second World War." 
The Barbican Center
"The Barbican is Europe's largest multi-arts and conference venue presenting a diverse range of art, music, theatre, dance, film and education events.
The Centre comprises the 1,949 seat Barbican Hall, the 1,166-seat Barbican Theatre, the 200-seat Pit theatre, 3 cinemas, the 1,393 m2 Barbican Art Gallery, a second gallery; The Curve, 4,645m2 of foyers and public spaces, the Lakeside Terrace, a roof-top tropical conservatory, 7 conference suites, 2 trade exhibition halls, private function rooms and 3 restaurants; Barbican Foodhall, Barbican Lounge and Searcys."
4,645 square metres of foyers? Plenty of room to meet Andrew and Rachael for the pre-performance drink, then. 

I read up a little about Lepage and 'The Blue Dragon' before attending. It seems I'm a little behind the times, as this is a further production in a trilogy; or, more accurately, a sequel to (or 'spin-off' from) a trilogy (what's the word for the fourth in a series?) The original trilogy is from 1985 is called 'Dragon Trilogy'. The central character from the 1985, artist Pierre Lamontagne, resurfaces in Shanghai 20 years later; and the themes include contemporary China and its interaction with the West. Here are its stats:

Written By Marie Michaud and Robert Lepage 
English Translation by Michael Mackenzie 
Directed by Robert Lepage 
Performed by Marie MichaudRobert Lepage and Tai Wei Foo

Robert Lepage talking about 'Blue Dragon' (Vancouver 2010)

Then there is the involvement of Ex Machina, Lepage's own company, responsible for the remarkable staging feats he manages to produce. And I quote from their web site: "Ex Machina’s creative team believes that the performing arts - dance, opera, music - should be mixed with recorded arts - film making, video art and multimedia. That there must be meetings between scientists and playwrights, between set painters and architects, and between artists from Québec and the rest of the world." Cool. Though I notice that they skip meetings with philosophers. Perhaps they should consider that.

Oh, and then there were the reviews  I read in advance. These were interestingly mixed. Michael Billington in The Guardian liked it:
Where the trilogy often felt like a decorative soap, this is a more slyly political piece. But Lepage's production and Michel Gauthier's design, while questioning eastern values, also have a consummate delicacy and cinematic fluency. Performed in French, English and Mandarin, the piece offers us Chinese calligraphy and dance, beautiful images of miniaturised, high-speed trains and traditional bicycles, and swift transitions from Pierre's studio flat to stations, airports and bars. You feel that Lepage, while critical of the east, is also hypnotised by its aesthetic.
But some of the comment-makers were more critical:
Whilst I agree the theatre craft is exemplary... the narrative itself left me unengaged and even cold. I found it possessed little more depth than an oft read sunday supplement article drawn with fat crayons. The progress of the relationship was predictable even cliched, the politics of engaging in a non-western society facile and frankly the characterisation of Xiao Ling could have appeared in any third rate TV drama. Sorry Michael... this is not skilled modern story telling. It is however, highly skilled, auteur led theatre and does thrill on that level alone. Let's keep demanding the narrative bar to be higher.
And others obviously enraptured:

'it is impossible to convey the full beauty of The Blue Dragonat the Barbican … It’s a joy to behold, and very moving.' Whats on stage 5* 

'But The Blue Dragon makes something gently magical out of all our little choices and evasions' The Times 4* 

Lepage’s techniques have been much imitiated, but there is still no one who executes them with such compelling command. These techniques are not an end to themselves but entirely in the service of superbly skilful storytelling, and Lepage the director is magnificently served too, by his actors, including himself' The Stage 

'…a gorgeous piece of theatre' Financial Times 4* 

I went along to The Barbican intrigued about making up my own mind. 

An excerpt from the play itself -you can find anything on You Tube!

And my verdict? Worth seeing, undeniably gorgeous and clever stagecraft and design. Very engaging themes, which could have been treated with a little more depth; but I don't mind that style of "make it up as we go along" improvisation. It was 105 minutes without an interval, and frankly could have been trimmed in places - there were some slow moments which were just plain slow. But my main reaction was that with a couple of great actors in the Lepage and Michaud roles, something much better could have been made of it. The Chinese girl, Tai Wei Foo, was very good - much the best, acting-wise. The plot line involved a love triangle, of course, and I kept thinking of 'A Steetcar Named Desire', and what a strong story that is, and in the hands of great actors how the sparks fly. There was, sadly, no chemistry in 'The Blue Dragon'. But lots of marvellous stagecraft effects. *** from this reviewer.

Tai Wei Foo and Marie Michaud

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