Now you see it...

Robert Lepage's hi-tec `Hamlet' should have been the hit of the Edinburgh Festival - until the gremlins struck. It'll take more than a faulty rivet, though, to shake this director's faith in machines. By Carole Woddis
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
`The character of Hamlet never really interested me. Probably because I never approached it as an actor but as a story-teller or as a director. I was more interested in Elsinore and its environment, which is why actually I called the piece Elsinore."

When, thanks to a single faulty rivet, Robert Lepage's much-touted, techno- literate "variations on a theme of Hamlet" failed to materialise at this year's Edinburgh Festival, not only did it become a major non-event, costing the Festival some pounds 100,000 at the box-office, it also gave Luddite voices the kind of ammunition they'd long been waiting for.

"The theatre's escalating addiction to technology needs to be kicked, no production should ever have to be cancelled because of mechanical failure," thundered one critic. "This sad and disgraceful episode raises questions that go beyond the Lepage company's efficiency," added another. "Is theatre technology getting above itself?"

Many might feel some sympathy for the rearguard action these views reflect, particularly in the light of other emerging trends. For even as the young turks make merry with technology's toys, in another part of the garden, theatre's oldest natural strengths - the human voice and the power of the imagination - have suddenly rediscovered their natural home with the opening this summer of Sam Wanamaker's proud and populist, sawdust-and- spittle Bankside Globe.

The cog, too, that overturned the Lepage apple-cart in Edinburgh wasn't the first time Elsinore's elaborate techno-machinery had failed to deliver. Between Lepage, his own technical team and that of the Festival, someone had badly bungled. As it was, all were left with egg on their faces.

Not, you fancy, that the embarrassment to which Lepage later confessed deterred him for too long. He would not be where he is now - without doubt the most exciting and remarkable metteur-en-scene to have emerged in the past decade - if he did not possess self-belief to a degree that enables him to negotiate awkward artistic rapids with apparent insouciance. Maybe it is all a sham. But the scale and dimension of his endeavours would seem to argue otherwise.

A ground-breaking synthesiser of the human dimension in theatre with the most sophisticated of late-20th-century theatrical and cultural technologies (not for nothing has he changed his company's name from the more prosaic Theatre Repere to Ex Machina, with Lepage himself presumably acting as "deus"), the Quebecois director has access to resources, funds and a way of working that are luxuries that penny-pinched British theatre practitioners can only dream of.

This year, his increasing fascination with things cinematic has led to the release (to respectable if not exactly excitable reviews) of two films - the Hitchockian Le Confessionel, and the semi-autobiographical Le Polygraphe, based on Lepage's disturbing and unsettling stage show about identity and his own implication in a murder investigation. Back in Quebec, he and his company should, local politics allowing, soon be moving into their new, purpose-built, freshly converted arts centre, La Caserne, formerly an old fire-station.

Meanwhile, after four years' gestation, the epic Seven Streams of the River Ota is nearing the final days of its stage life, Elsinore continues its globe-trotting with a five-town UK tour opening in Nottingham tonight, and Lepage is already talking of another "big project" linking Frank Lloyd Wright and the philosopher-mystic Gurdjieff. All of which activity implies a fair degree of privilege in his way of working.

Lepage, however, would argue that he and his company have been at pains to invent their own "production structure" - a slowly evolving, global schedule that overrides precisely the constraints of market forces and critical acclaim that usually determine theatrical success.

Not that Lepage is averse to critics. On the contrary, he appears, uniquely among directors, to use critical feedback as a constructive tool - kneading it, like a baker with his yeast, into the artistic process, seeing it as an essential ingredient in the "dialogue" (a favourite word) between artist and public. Like Peter Brook, the director with whom he was so often compared in his early years in the UK, Lepage is a student of gradualism - a true devotee of the belief that art, like life, must have time to find its way to perfection.

Yet there are few people more attuned to cultural currents than this bilingual French-Canadian, with the eyes of a laser and the look of a slightly startled sybaritic cherub. Which is why the technological aspects of his shows play such an important role for him. People are used to zapping, surfing, switching TV channels at home - it's the vocabulary, argues Lepage, they bring with them into the theatre. Why, then, should the theatre not reflect and mirror these emerging streams of communication?

"People say to me, why is there always a piece of machinery between your actor and your audience? And I say, why are there cell-phones beeping whilst I'm delivering `To be or not to be'? To me, it's something that deserves to be questioned and explored: how can we echo today's video, recording and sound devices in the theatre? How do we find Hamlet in that?"

He gives as an example the challenge of trying to find a way to express Hamlet's ghost on the battlements - "all about seeing something that's not there" - and his solution via the purchase of a cheap infra-red surveillance camera. In the resulting fabricated green-hued "ghostly appearance", there is, argues Lepage, "a kind of poetry... a way of connecting Shakespeare's poetry with today's electronic means". He talks eloquently about "finding a way to squeeze ghosts out of machines - for three seconds making those machines seem miraculous". (Oh, some have bemoaned, that he scrutinised texts with half the loving care he bestows upon his machines.)

This fascination with the potential lines of convergence between man and machine and visual illusion seems, however, to lie at the heart of Lepage's approach. From the delicate interlacings of The Dragon's Trilogy, through Polygraphe, Needles and Opium and Seven Streams, the genius of Lepage has always been, like that of the most stealthy yet sensitive of conjurors, to produce moments of matchless, fleeting beauty out of illusory, metaphorical top hats. In Dragon's Trilogy it was done with shoe-boxes and a phone-box. In Seven Streams and Elsinore, we are now riding on the back of a whole battery of more sophisticated, high-tech aids.

But there is another, more emotional reason Lepage puts forward for the "avalanche" (his word) of gadgetry and gimmickry with which he surrounds himself in his solo shows. It is, he says, because of the sheer nakedness he feels in performing. The technological excesses are, he admits, his "crutches", his masks. Yet they are also, like everything else in his work, subject to a creative process he likens to a sieve. "As I'm touring, some things hold and some things fall." After nearly a year on the road, Elsinore has undergone inevitable change: it is, he says, shorter, more condensed, more about one person, and more about loneliness and madness.

As he discusses Elsinore's evolution over the past months, you get a strong sense of the malleability of a Lepage show. For all the technical guff, here is a man prepared - and lucky enough, through reputation, resources and funding, to be able - to let the shape of things reveal themselves to him over time.

He fully admits that people have every right to feel suspicious of technology. But adds with enviable equanimity, and perhaps an unintentional echo of another Canadian auteur currently hogging the headlines because of his love-affair with the machine, "I think we're in a period of crash-down." Technical glitches are, to his fluid, zen-like mind, but useful obstacles to be incorporated into a general process of performance shake-down, discussion and openness to change.

But, he is asked, given the recent embarrassment of the Edinburgh cancellation, has he never thought of doing a non-technological Hamlet? "It would," he says unhesitatingly, "be like asking a painter to paint without his paint-pots."

For Lepage, the excitement of the future is clearly all about the coming collision of human beings with the three-dimensional advances in video and film technology - a collision he insists will take place in his favoured and, in his opinion, most liberating medium of theatre - "a place where you are still allowed to fall flat on your face".

"There is a moment in Elsinore," he explains, "when Hamlet speaks to Hamlet, when a door opens and the two mediums, the live actor and the video of himself, dialogue to each other." And it is, you feel, in discovering that moment of convergence between acting and technology that the real buzz lies for this former geography teacher who once, in an interview, spoke of his obsession with the question "why, on a map, the frontier is here and not there?" and who continues still, perhaps, to be gripped by the potential for fluctuation and evanescence posed by any and every boundaryn

`Elsinore' on tour: tonight to Sat, Nottingham Playhouse (0115-941 9419), then 27-30 Nov Newcastle Playhouse (0191-230 5151), 3-7 Dec Glasgow Tramway (0141-287 5511), 11-14 Dec Cambridge Arts Theatre (01223 503333), 4-11 Jan RNT Lyttelton, London (0171-928 2252)