One of my favorite scenes in Robert Lepage's nine-hour play Lipsynch
occurs at the end of the first act. The young man Jeremy has fought with his adoptive mother and is in a plane flying off to make a new life for himself. We see him lighted in a window of the plane, clouds scudding behind it. It's startling when his adoptive mother (an opera singer) appears outside the still-airborne plane, singing a beautiful piece from Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
, and even grippier when his dead birth mother climbs on top of the plane and begins walking above him. Lepage manages to put the audience completely in Jeremy's head and give us his feelings of longing, love and sadness for his two mothers.
A lot of skill was required to make that scene work - to make us able for a moment to accept we were at 40,000 feet watching Jeremy through his little oval window; make us able to morph into being inside Jeremy's head. The plane set had been introduced much earlier and played with: we first saw the inside; then it became an airport bus. This is a pattern in the play: in each act there is one piece of set that is changed in a fluid, transformative way that made the sets central to the production rather than just a prop.
I don't need every theatrical production I attend to provide a new interpretation or employ new narrative techniques. But when something as startlingly innovative as Lipsynch
comes along, it's an enormous rush.
I know Lepage through his direction of opera (Bluebeard's Castle, Erwartung, The Damnation of Faust
), where he uses dazzling high-tech tricks to add emotional wallop to the production. From seeing his operas, I expected zowie special effects. But Lipsynch
isn't like that at all. It uses a lot of new effects, but I wasn't immediately aware of many of them as
For example - All the dialog was miked, but the sound system was good so you didn't really realize it was miked. The importance of the miking was that the actors could talk quietly - naturally - so there was none of the staginess of a typical live play. I don't have any problem with staginess, but the naturalness (you might even say TVishness) created a totally different theater experience, and very interesting.
Another example of an effective but understated effect: When Lupe, who at 15 was forced into the prostitution, appears in a scanty costume, she stands before a bank of fluorescent light bulbs, making it painful to look at her: a really good way to ensure that a story about exploitation is not itself exploitative.
Lipsynch is simply a new type of play. The intimacy of the quiet, understated dialog is part of it. The structure is another: there isn't the usual narrative arc, but nine separate portraits of characters whose connections aren't always immediately apparent. The play was written by the actors, and it is self-consciously a collaborative effort, showing a plethora of visions. I had the sense that everything I saw or heard was deliberate and important, but there was no single crux to it all. The main themes are communication and artifice. For part of the play, the two themes are used to produce a sort of autocommentary: theater exposing the mechanics of theater. It is also about all the different ways that humans communicate and the things about communication that hold them back. It is also about sexual abuse and exploitation.
The structure of the plot concerns two women who were abused and exploited. Lupe starts and ends the play and all the other characters radiate out from her, but the other story of sexual exploitation is in some ways even more central (and seems to be the story that created the title).
The play uses a real recording done in a BBC studio of a woman named Sarah who was interviewed about being a prostitute, and the actors lipsynch the lines. While Lupe was unable to express herself because of language and age barriers, Sarah is extremeley eloquent but eerily detached and clinical, as if she is unable to feel what has happened to her. The BBC interviewer sounds totally unsympathetic, as if she was asking about a shopping excursion rather than childhood abuse and a life of horror on the streets. Later in the plot, the way Sarah is treated is brutal but nonchalant. We never even find out how her story winds up (just as noone knows what happened to the voice in the interview): our society doesn't treat female sex workers as our equals.
Sarah is the character who sticks with me the most. While narratively she's a side story, memorializing her experience seemed to me to be the central import of the play. It was after I saw the play that I learned that Sarah's lines were lipsynched and that we had heard her real voice. The production had playfully tricked us on a few occasions, making us think we were seeing one thing and then showing us it was really something else. The lipsynched scene was like a scarlet letter, an exposed but unseen nugget of real, raw humanity.
The play has some goofy moments (very enjoyable), and I think such moments are virtually a requirement of a long piece of theater. When I saw Kenneth Branagh with his Renaissance Theater group doing Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V all in one day, his direction called for some pretty outrageous stunts by Henry V to wake us up and keep us alert. Branagh had the invasion of France done by WWII-era tanks and a huge banner that said "Fuck the French!", along with bright, loud explosions. Lepage has a dead man farting and a few other jokes, but it accomplishes the same thing. The nine hours were an enjoyable, sometimes intense, sometimes funny odyssey.
Note: This play has been a work in progress for a couple of years. The production I saw was at the Toronto 2009 Luminato Festival.