The Dragons' Trilogy, Barbican Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Coming to the Trilogy for the first time, I was amazed at how precisely it anticipates the brilliant imagistic virtuosity and the weird mix of profundity and fathomless vacuity found in later pieces, such as the even longer Seven Streams of the River Ota.

Spanning 75years, the Trilogy explores the relationship between East and West through two French-Canadian friends. Jeanne is forced into marriage with the son of a Chinese laundryman who won her at poker from her feckless father. Pregnant by the true love of her life, she gives birth to a daughter who is brain-damaged by meningitis. The happy-go-lucky Françoise prospers in a wartime marriage to a Canadian soldier. Her artist son Pierre falls in love with a young half-Japanese woman of tragic ancestry.

The piece is staged with extraordinary brilliance on a rectangular expanse of sand and gravel, an attendant's kiosk at one end. This is a Quebec car park, covering the Chinatown where the epic begins and ends.

The best moments are often simple. A talkative nun arrives to take Jeanne's daughter to an institution. We wonder where the poor daughter is until the mother suddenly starts undressing the nun, who, in a piercing metamorphosis, dwindles into the daughter. The comically fatuous instructions on Françoise's audio touch-typing course take on a disturbing note as they counterpoint the X-ray examinations that detect Jeanne's cancer.

Performed by a cast of eight to a haunting score by Robert Caux, the piece builds with insidious power from an unhurried start. The Trilogy invites you to discern different designs in its skeins of cross-connected imagery. It is a prodigious achievement but I was left with doubts.

The plot makes your average Dickens novel look like a coincidence-free zone. And there's something oddly weightless in its gradual reconciliation of opposites - East/West, male/female etc. It is not the first time Lepage has made wisdom and banality look strangely similar.

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