Robert Lepage’s captivating 887 shares the story of his youth, just not all of it.
Robert Lepage isn’t the sort of magician who waves a wand or pulls rabbits from a hat, but whenever he takes the stage, you can be sure he’ll have more than a few cards up his sleeve. The world-renowned theatrical figure whose talents also extend to film, opera and circus proves that once again with the arrival of his one-man play 887 at the National Arts Centre. It is the first time the English version has played Ottawa since the show began touring the globe in 2015 (the French version was at the NAC in 2016).
With the support his production company, Ex Machina, Lepage wrote, designed, directed and performs 887, a 2-hour exploration of his past that is both memoir and history lesson as he revisits a boyhood caught up in the social and political turmoil of 1960s Quebec.
The time machine that transports us there is a wondrous replica of the apartment building where Lepage spent his early years: 887 Murray Avenue in Quebec City, his family’s home from 1960, when Robert was still a toddler, until 1970. Sitting at centre stage, it resembles a giant dollhouse that is part Mattel, part Ibsen: a playful structure full of domestic drama. As it spins on a carousel, the various walls swing and slide open to reveal rooms and memories that come alive with the help of video screens and projections. The transitions are seamless, the detail stunning.
Lepage introduces us to the other tenants, who like the province, are a mix of French and English. Each has their own specific stories, from the bachelor nursing a broken body and heart, to the libidinous housewife with a taste for door-to-door salesmen. At the heart of it all is Apt. 5, the cramped, 3-bedroom unit that is home to Robert, his father and mother, two sisters, brother and a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
As events play out inside 887 Murray, so too do they unfold outside with Quebec’s Quiet Revolution growing louder and more volatile. Lepage recalls the upheaval, including the 1970 October Crisis, as witnessed through his young eyes.
But hovering over both narratives is not so much Lepage as his cab driver father, Ferdinand, a taciturn former life guard and navy man who never gives the small and shy Robert the attention he so desperately craves. A bilingual francophone who once fought for “King and Country”, Ferdinand now finds himself sympathizing with the complaints of Quebec’s growing separatist movement though not with some of its tactics.
“It was a complete discovery very late in my life how important [my father] had been in my life.”
The most surprising thing about Ferdinand, and consequently the play itself, is that he is in it at all, let alone is the main protagonist. During an interview with critic Monna Dithmer at the Bergen International Festival in Norway last May, the 60-year-old Lepage explained that when he started writing the play he, astonishingly, didn’t think his father would even be a part of it.
“It was a complete discovery very late in my life how important he had been in my life,” he said. “For some reason I had completely forgotten that. I discovered very late in my life, developing this show, that I’m actually closer to my father than my mother on so many things… he was monumental.”
Exactly how Lepage’s father went, literally, from zero to hero is never raised in 887 nor is it explained how Lepage could have forgotten his father’s importance (a particularly curious mystery as so much of the play is about memory). As well, the play never mentions the traumatic onset of alopecia, an autoimmune disorder, that caused Robert’s hair to permanently fall out when he was just 5 years old. Critically, Lepage also fails to mention his older brother and sister were both anglophones and adopted, explaining the language duality that existed in his home. Lepage invites us into 887 Murray but clearly some rooms remain off limits. In a play whose lifeblood is memories, there are many that are either missing or unexplained.
“People think I’m revealing everything about my upbringing and my youth,” Lepage told CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel last April. “But actually I’m hiding a lot of stuff because they would be subject matter for different shows. [Mentioning alopecia] would have eclipsed all of the rest of the subject matter that I found deserved to be in the foreground.”
“The great freedom of autofiction is that everything is for real, everything’s the truth… But everything’s a little untrue… to make it a better story.”
And so, when it comes to 887 seeing is not quite believing. Along with the omissions, Lepage also employs some artistic licence. In reality, some of the people described as fellow tenants never actually lived in Lepage’s building. They lived across the street or in the area. The Michèle Lalonde poem Speak White which, at the outset of the play, Lepage says he recited at a particular Montreal gala was, in real life, never performed as described. During the interview with Monna Dithmer, Lepage said he actually recited a different poem at a different event.
But then 887 is not an autobiography. It is, as Lepage describes it, “autofiction”.
“The great freedom of autofiction is that everything is for real, everything’s the truth,” he told the CBC’s Wachtel. “But everything’s a little untrue… to make it a better story.”
However, unless you know what to look for, it’s unlikely you’ll spot the line between truth and fiction in 887. It’s well concealed by the dazzling stagecraft and disarming performance Lepage so magically executes. With some highly creative sleight of hand, Lepage convinces us to look where he wants us to, leaving us willingly charmed by a masterful wizard who knows how to cast a spell and tell a story.
887 runs until January 27 at the National Arts Centre. Tickets are available online or at the NAC box office. Evening performances begin at 7:30 pm Tuesday through Saturday. Saturday matinees are at 2pm.