Fans of Robert Lepage have come to expect certain things from the French-Canadian theater maker: seductive storytelling, wry character observation and a stagecraft that lies somewhere between technical innovation and magic. All such expectations are happily fulfilled in “887,” his latest, beguiling one-man show making its European premiere as part of the Edinburgh International Festival after its recent Toronto debut. Less expected are the bursts of political anger that crack the surface of Lepage’s placid demeanor in a play about memory, amnesia and the hidden wounds of the past.
Like Simon McBurney in “The Encounter,” the equally astonishing solo show playing in an adjacent room during the festival, Lepage introduces “887” with an observation about smart phones and memory. These tiny gadgets in our pockets save us the effort of remembering, he says. Numbers, dates and names we would once have known by heart are now kept externally. Lepage, playing a comically conceited version of himself, can’t even recall the number of his own cell phone — although the digits of his childhood phone at 887 Avenue Murray in Quebec City have never left him.
In one respect, this observation is a simple way of bringing the audience with him into his bigger concerns to do with Canadian history, the movement for Quebecois independence and his own formative experiences in the decade from 1960. But it is with characteristic Lepagian ingenuity that he absorbs the phone itself into his theatrical toolkit.
Some of the two-hour performance’s most captivating moments are when he uses the phone to project live images of his scale-model set as if he is animating his own memories. Inside the cardboard boxes supposedly containing his sister’s archive of family photographs is a series of rooms recalling a childhood Christmas at the home of his aunt and uncle. The modern-day Lepage towers over the scene, yet certain memories, such as the gift of a toy car, remain large in his imagination and dominate the screen behind him.
In a performance that alternates between lecture-style direct address and poetic narration (complete with rhymes), Lepage jumps from the story of General Wolfe’s Battle of Quebec in 1759 to the story of his father, a working-class navy vet turned taxi driver. One minute we’re hearing about the visit of French president Charles de Gaulle in 1967, the next we’re in a 21st-century apartment where an actor attempts to learn Michèle Lalonde’s “Speak White.”
It is this incendiary poem, a howl of rage against Anglophone suppression of the French language, that gives the performance its unexpected political weight. A community is defined by its shared experience and its collective memory, a memory frequently expressed through a common language. Forgetting a phone number may be of little consequence but, Lepage seems to say, forgetting our history and forgetting the reasons for the battles of the past is of much greater import.
There is anger too in his realization that it was poverty, not lack of talent, that denied him an exclusive Jesuit education. Today, he finds it more unjust still that drama-school education appears to have become the preserve of the wealthy. There’s a theme bubbling beneath the surface about class and opportunity, and the suggestion — not fully articulated — that the great movements of history he describes were determined by injustice and inequality.
Lepage continues to develop his work beyond opening night and, that being the case, he may yet find more mileage in the story of his grandmother, whose memory loss (at the hands of Alzheimer’s) chimes with the themes of “887” but doesn’t fully connect. That, though, is a minor niggle in a work that delights, mesmerizes and provokes.