It's March 1999. Quebec City is gleaming under several feet of snow. We're sitting in La Caserne, the Old Port fire station converted by director Robert Lepage into a hi-tech theatrical playground. I'm there to talk about Geometry of Miracles, his typically ambitious - and typically flawed - attempt to give theatrical shape to the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.
But he tells me about another project he's working on. It will be a one-man show inspired by Buzz Aldrin's Return to Earth, an account of how an astronaut copes with everyday life after he's been to the Moon. Lepage, who has straddled the planet with ground-breaking triumphs such as Needles and Opium, Tectonic Plates and The Seven Streams of the River Ota, says he's feeling like an astronaut himself: having scaled the artistic heights, he's worried that the only way is down.
"I don't want to sound pretentious, but I've had the impression that I've been to the Moon," he says. "And I'm just not interested in the same things any more. That's why I'm doing something about the Moon. It's an unexplored area where I don't know the rules. You've got the glory, but also the risk and the danger of being the first one to set foot on it."
A year later, Lepage's vision was on the road. The Far Side of the Moon opened in his home city before touring the world, visiting Newcastle, Glasgow and London in 2001. Some time after our meeting, his mother had died, causing him to reflect not just on the creative journey he had taken in public since graduating from Quebec's Conservatoire d'Art Dramatique in 1978, but also on his more private and domestic relationship with her. At home and at work, Lepage was adrift. All of this fed into the play - the story of two brothers redefining their relationship after their mother's death, and staring into the immensity of space. It was Lepage at his spellbinding best.
Fast forward to 2003, and we find a Lepage who's getting used to seeing double. I catch him the week his film version of The Far Side of the Moon (presented in French as La Face Cachée de La Lune) has premiered at Toronto International Film Festival. As in the stage version, he plays the parts of both brothers, leading Lepage the director, sitting in the editing suite, to refer to Lepage the film actor as "him".
The cloning continues back in the theatre, where his fellow Québecois actor, Yves Jacques, has been performing the one-man show in Lepage's place. This is the version that arrives at London's Barbican this month. How difficult was it for Lepage to extract himself from so personal a project and pass over control to Jacques? "When I create a solo show it's so close to the bone that I always say I can't be replaced," he says. "But as you tour, it becomes its own thing. You start making it echo the audience's impression of it. It becomes something remote from yourself. There's a moment when you can pass it to somebody else."
Being the same age and coming from the same city, he and Jacques have known each other for years, but rarely have they worked together. You can see them both in Denys Arcand's delightful 1989 movie Jesus of Montreal, but generally they were so similar that directors would cast one or the other - never both. And as Lepage's theatrical career went into orbit, so Jacques's movie career set sail. He starred in Arcand's Decline of the American Empire in 1986 and this year's sequel, The Barbarian Invasions, which won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes and is released in the UK in January.
Jacques, then, was the obvious candidate to fill Lepage's shoes. "It was so natural and organic," says Lepage. "All of the Quebec City references, his relationship with his mother, his relationship with his life, his family, with art, were so parallel to mine that it was a very easy replacement."
Best of all, it allowed the ever-creative director to push the production on. "I'm blessed with doubt," he says. "Whatever I do, whether it's as a director or an actor, I always doubt everything. I'm never happy with the end result. When somebody steps into my shoes, he's always welcome to change things. There were still a lot of grey areas in the piece that I never really resolved. It was nice to have somebody come in and resolve things.'
Rewind to May, and we find Yves Jacques sitting in the bar of Montreal's Théâtre de Nouveau Monde. The box-office assistant points him out as he chats to friends over coffee. You get the feeling that everyone's glad to have him around. And so they should be. His four-week run of The Far Side of the Moon has been a massive hit, forcing him to squeeze in several extra performances.
Tall, good-looking and dressed in black, he's charming company. "It feels like Robert has gone to school and I'm in his bedroom playing with his toys for a while," he laughs. "But after a year and a half of touring it, I feel like it's my home. It's very Zen. I'm a little tired because I was performing it last night, but I know that at the end of the show this afternoon I will feel good, relaxed and full of energy. I feel privileged to do it."
The good news is that he's easily a match for Lepage. His performance is full of grace and warmth and, if anything, the show is more refined since the last time it was seen in Britain.
For Lepage, the whole experience has had the right effect. He's been into space, come back to Earth and rooted himself ready to face the future. "Far Side was a great liberation, because I did a lot of stuff that I don't usually do in my plays," says Lepage. "As an actor, I did things that I'm usually against. It marked a moment where I became more open to whatever's there. Instead of trying to direct yet another Robert Lepage show, why don't I just let myself be influenced by whatever it is out there that will help me tell another story?"
As a result, this most tireless of artists has a calendar more packed than ever. Take a deep breath: he's revived his 1985 hit, The Dragon Trilogy, which is touring the world with possible UK dates next year; he's working with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas; there's an adaptation of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four for London's Royal Opera House in 2005; John Mighton, the author of Possible Worlds, is writing a play for him; he's devising a version of The Threepenny Opera; he's started work on a new one-man show for 2005; and he's completed the first workshop - with members of Northumberland's Théâtre Sans Frontières - that will lead to the company's next major work: lasting several hours, it will be about the "human voice in all sorts of forms".
"Robert is a genius every day," says Jacques, who reckons Lepage's talent stood out from the very start. "He sees things in another way to the rest of us. When I saw him playing The Far Side he was always trying to find new things to do, even with a show that he had been touring for a year and a half. It's quite amazing."
'The Far Side of the Moon', 16-25 October; two of Lepage's films, 'Le Confessional' and 'Possible Worlds' will be screened 25 & 26 October, Barbican Centre, London EC2 (020-7638 8891)Reuse content