Our memories act upon us, selecting events, experiences and emotions from our lives, apparently at random; they make meanings of them, whittling them into storylines or setting out rules for living. In his one-person stage play 887 the Canadian director, actor and playwright Robert Lepage unravels such narratives, questioning the characteristics that form our identities. “I call 887 a work of ‘auto-fiction’; everything in it is true, but then everything in it is not true…” says Lepage, speaking at a press conference before the first of two sell-out performances in Barcelona last week.
In 887, Lepage relates his childhood experiences in Quebec City in the 1960s, a time of acute social and political change marked by a surge in Québécois nationalism. “I’ve tried to summarise the 1960s in an act of memory,” he says, “but while it’s a very personal play in which I speak in the first person, it isn’t only about me; my memories serve as a pretext to explore something wider, more universal, that is occurring in Quebec but also here in Catalonia, where feelings of national pride and calls for separatism have become severed from the historical events that gave rise to them.”
“The cars in Quebec have a slogan on the license plate that reads: ‘Je me souviens‘ (I remember). But no one seems to know what it is that we do remember!” To investigate this further, Lepage began with his own experiences growing up in a cramped apartment at 887 Murray Avenue, which he shared with his parents, three siblings and, for a while, his grandmother who had Alzheimer’s disease. “My parents were simple, working class folk. Many of their generation fought under the English flag, but in the 1960s they became subject to conflictive interior pressures.”
A family full of stories
It was in rooting through the family photographs that his sister had kept that Lepage discovered the sort of trickery that memory gets up to. “Looking into the past is not necessarily therapeutic. Old pictures open doors… but going through that door is difficult. Expanding photographs reveals details that change your perspective on how things were… For example, I’d always got the impression that my dad was never around. He was always out, driving his taxicab. But in making the piece I’ve discovered that he was a huge figure in our lives.”
Lepage is probably best known internationally for his epic stage sets, with precise hi-tech formats that function flawlessly via an invisible hand. 887 subverts this reputation: narrated from a child’s perspective, it features an artisanal set – something straight from a giant’s toy box – that requires physical manhandling. A doll’s house with glowing rooms and little figures wandering within is pushed aside to reveal a walk-in kitchen, with an interrogatory fridge light. A toy car buzzes by, spotlighting the stage. A video shows a mini Charles de Gaulle giving an impassioned speech, popping up and down from a top pocket.
“I invite the audience into a game,” says Lepage. “There’s something puppet-like about it… it takes me back to the days when I was fascinated by miniature things.”
And whether it is the delicacy of these interactive elements, the allusion to child’s play, or the risky territory that is the past, something seems bound to go wrong… as it does when I saw the production last Friday, with all three microphones pinned to the actor began playing up!
“I decided to work with scale models because the further you think back, the less precise the memory, so the scale is very small, and the closer the memory the larger the scale. It’s something that I saw in an anthropological museum in Osaka.”
Motifs running through the show allude to the workings of memory and the fluid nature of identity. One is Lepage’s attempt to learn Michèle Lalond’s poem Speak White by heart in order to recite it at an anniversary celebration. The political poem, written in 1968, rails against linguistic imperialism, reflecting the ideology of Quebec nationalists in their promotion of French language and culture. Yet what, as Lepage seems to be suggesting, do such poster-poems mean today? Uprooted from their historical context, recited by rote, the impassioned words of resistance might swivel into the barked orders of repression.
“Today’s generation speaks with great sentiment but often without knowledge: the people of Quebec have forgotten the working class movement on which the Québécois identity is based. Culture had something to do with it, yes, but at heart it was not a case of English versus French – it was about class.”
Lepage’s father, a former sailor, spoke excellent English: “He was interested in people not politics: even in the 1960s when the language had became associated with British and American imperialism, he insisted that we learn English so that we open ourselves up to the wider world. We were resistant but thank God he did.” Lepage recalls how he used to sit in his taxi at night, tuning in to the US radio over the border: this image, featuring the vocals of all-American songstress Nancy Sinatra, makes for a powerful motif in the play, seeming to reconcile in audio-visual poetry the contradictions of liberty represented linguistically.
The lure of identity
The Québécois identity today is as complex as ever, says Lepage, and always partially defined by others. “On the one hand there is an attachment to our sense of identity and our resistance to American English, on the other there is a desire to reach beyond borders and to put ourselves on the world map”. As for his own identity, “I don’t know how to define myself: abroad I am Canadian, in Quebec I’m Québécois… To have an identity is alluring – but not as a means to close yourself off.”