Robert Lepage: 'I'm fascinated by the Devil'

Robert Lepage's work has always provoked an extreme reaction among theatregoers. So what will they make of his new, diabolically inspired operatic production?

"I believe in the Devil, the possibility that you and I could be having a serious conversation, and suddenly the Devil could walk into the room. The conversation would have to stop." It stops anyway. Robert Lepage, the fêted French-Canadian writer, performer and auteur, cackles, a touch demonically, into the conversational void. We're in the bowels of the Barbican, a dressing-room that is eerily, excessively mirrored, which exaggerates his otherworldly appearance. From the age of six, Lepage has suffered from alopecia. Today his wig is a funky, chestnut, elfin affair, but his lack of eyebrows, eyelashes and preternaturally smooth, hairless chin lend him the compelling aura of a temporary visitant to earth.

As do his pronouncements. A conversation with Lepage is like one of his shows. He leaps from the mundane to the dazzlingly poetic on the most tenuous of segues, and whenever you think you've got his number, he'll satirise himself until you lose it again. "I haven't become a Satanist," he laughs, "but I am fascinated by the character of the Devil."

This is by way of explanation as to why he wanted to direct Stravinsky's 1951 opera, The Rake's Progress, which opens at the Royal Opera House tomorrow. Based on the 18th-century prints by Hogarth, it boasts a magnificent neoclassical score and one of the greatest librettos ever penned, by WH Auden and Chester Kallman. But what drew Lepage to the project was his identification with the character of Tom Rakewell, lured by the temptations of the big city, who marriesa bearded lady and loses his soul and sanity to the Mephistophelian Nick Shadow in an ill-fated hand of cards.

Lepage has dragged Hogarth to Hollywood, setting the opera in the American West Coast of the 1950s. When Tom gambles with the Devil, he goes to Vegas to cut the cards.



Watch a trailer for 'The Rake's Progress'




In 2004, Lepage spent six months in Sin City creating uber-show Kà for fellow Quebecois cultural megalith Guy Laliberté of Cirque Du Soleil. "Vegas is the city of temptation," Lepage says. "I think perhaps it is an experiment by Nasa. If we're going to send people to Mars, how will we create false economies and cultures to satisfy them? Vegas has the answer. People go there when they've nothing left to lose. There are always two maids working together in the hotels of Vegas, as they find bodies of suicides all the time."

Whenever Lepage comes to town, the whiff of the circus isn't far behind. For three decades his work has drawn either scathing opprobrium or wild adulation. One critic described his solo show The Far Side of the Moon as the greatest event of his theatre-going life when it opened at the National in 2001. Ecstatic audiences agreed. He's famed for making theatre for people who don't like theatre, playfully surreal, marked by a tension between nostalgic romanticism and an ultra-modern technical wizardry, an inimitable visual flair and the ability to link deeply personal stories with improbably vast intellectual themes. Whenever theatre is accused of being a dying art, Lepage is cited as proof otherwise.

Yet, for every groundbreaking work, there is a messy, occasionally muddy, critical debacle. As recently as 2002, his La Casa Azul, about the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, was dismissed as intellectually tired and emotionally limpid. Today, Lepage claims to have developed an immunity to criticism: "I don't disagree with the critics often, and I'm not destroyed by bad criticism any more. There comes a point when you go beyond it."

Which makes him sound like a dangerously pompous prima donna. But whatever else you might accuse Lepage of – exorbitant spending on his shows, (Kà cost a faintly immoral £87.8m) reducing actors to tears by changing his mind days before an opening, or weeks afterwards, creating solo shows that only he has the charisma to carry – the prima donna appellation refuses to stick. "I thought that with The Andersen Project," he says of his triumphant solo show at the Barbican in 2006, an eclectic ode to Hans Christian Andersen, "that all the headlines would read 'The emperor's new clothes'. It didn't happen. But actually, that is what you have to be careful of: that nobody's noticing when you aren't wearing anything."

Lepage is unpretentious in person. At home in Quebec with his partner of 14 years, the writer/performer Kevin McCoy and their dog Comet, he spends his time "eating and watching television. I'm a good North American." And although turning 50 felt like "a big wall" last December, he took the edge off it by "hanging out with people a few years older than me. It's a good trick. I advise it."

Whatever the media furore surrounding him, Lepage emanates an aura of contained calm. "My boyfriend is a Buddhist who chants twice a day," he says "He tells me I have a Buddha nature. I hope he wasn't referring to my weight. But I believe in the Buddhist idea of flowers blooming from the muddiest waters."

Lepage's past is undoubtedly muddied. His alopecia rendered his childhood painfully isolated, and a terrifying experience with an opium-laced joint at 14 crushed him with agoraphobia for months until his younger sister, Lynda, now his assistant in Quebec, forced him to perform in a school play. He claims the experience saved his sanity and forged an unbreakable bond between him and the theatre.

His home, by contrast, was deeply divided. His parents adopted two children before moving to Quebec and conceiving Lepage. He and his birth sister consequently spoke French, while their elder siblings, having been brought up in Nova Scotia, spoke English. His house, Lepage notes, was a "metaphor for Canada".

That linguistic tension is an experience he will explore at the Barbican in his forthcoming show Lipsynch, a tie-up between his company, Ex Machina, and the small, Northumberland-based Théâtre Sans Frontières. The show, which opens in September, has been six years in the devising, and will run for a buttock-trying nine-hour duration.

Voice, language and speech are the "divine trinity" behind Lipsynch, issuing from the father, the mother and the self – though the father "could be your mother's female lover". "The father's voice belongs to the person with the greatest emotional impact on your mother when you are in the womb," he explains.

Lipsynch promises to relentlessly pursue the idea of how we come to own language, through the repeating arcs of nine characters across seven decades (from 1945 to 2015). Of course, Lepage says, the show is not a departure from his lush visual style, and "yes, some actors will appear in multiple stories, to hold it all together – it's like plaiting a braid". But ask him to divulge that unifying narrative, and he pauses. "It's very complex," he chuckles. "And also, it's not done yet."

For most, such uncertainty would be crippling. For Lepage, it is crucial: "I try to keep two things in my work: doubt and chaos. People ask me: have you a recipe, a 'language Lepagean'? I say no, keep that idea away from me, I don't want it. I like to go out on a limb."

Centre stage: How Lepage has taken theatre by storm

The Dragon's Trilogy, 1985

The then 27-year-old Lepage's five-hour investigation of the connections between East and West launched his international career. Rapturously received for its inventive language and emotional charge

The Seven Streams of the River Ota, 1994

Interwoven tales of post-Hiroshima grief; appalled critics when it opened, as it over-ran by two hours; two years of workshopping later, and it was hailed as "spellbinding"

The Far Side of The Moon, 2000

Lepage played two brothers, one a brash TV weatherman, the other a failed, introspective academic, both in mourning for their mother. Their relationship is likened to that of the US and the Soviet Union in the space race

The Andersen Project, 2005

A satirical lament on loneliness and loss, as a displaced French-Canadian rock star is asked to write an opera based on Andersen's tale The Dryad and arrives in Paris in search of critical affirmation

'The Rake's Progress' is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000, www.royalopera.org) until 18 July. 'Lipsynch' is at the Barbican (020 7638 8891, www.barbican.org.uk) from 6-14 September

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links