The Young Genius season, co-produced by the Barbican and the Young Vic, celebrates the “artists who know at once who they are, who find their voice the moment they start to speak”. The season opened on Friday with Robert Lepage’s The Dragons’ Trilogy, the epic work that launched him onto the world stage at the tender age of 27. Matthew Amer packed some provisions and headed off to the press night.
If a 90 minute Mamet is a theatrical mouthful and a three hour Shakespeare is the equivalent of a thespianic square meal, Robert Lepage’s The Dragons’ Trilogy is a full-scale feast of theatre filling over five hours with the finest stage-set morsels and a whole heap of trimmings. The journey on which the audience is taken is no less extravagant than the time itself, following three generations of Canadians through very different lives.
Central to the plot are Jeanne and Francoise, 12 year-old best friends at the beginning of proceedings. While Francoise grows up to join the Canadian war effort and mother an artist son, Jeanne’s life takes a downward spiral. Due to the antics of her drunk father, she is forced to marry against her will; an act that leads to further misery. While Francoise is falling in love with a soldier, Jeanne’s marriage is falling apart as she realises she can no longer care for her sick child.
Around the girls, other characters revolve; drifting in and out of the action. When, as 12 year-olds, they turn shoeboxes into the St. Joseph Street shops, Englishman William S Crawford strolls into their toytown before finding his way into the real laundry of Mr Wong; the clash between East and West, the Chinese way of life and that of the French Canadians, is central to many of the interlinking plots.
The Dragons’ Trilogy blends theatre, physical theatre, dance, music and film seamlessly: a tense hand of poker is depicted through rhythms beat out on a metal drum; an opium-fuelled dream turns into a Tai-Chi inspired sequence; an orating nun is paraded through a Chinese square in the basket of a bicycle. Memorably, the effect of the war on Jeanne’s family is expressed as ice-skating soldiers storm through their family home, destroying everything in their path.
The set itself is a masterpiece of invention. Essentially a large Zen garden with a lamppost at one end and a parking attendant’s hut at the other, it becomes – with the help of lighting, sound, minimal props and a little imagination – the murky basement of a Chinese laundry, the middle of a packed airport, an ice rink, a home, a train and the venue for a film premiere. The multi-purpose hut becomes the entrance to different, never-before-seen buildings, while its roof effortlessly transforms into different bedrooms; both innocent and not.
With so much going on, nothing is superfluous; everything has a meaning. Parallels run through different plots: Francoise’s typing test, broadcast from her stereo for the audience to hear, bears remarkable significance upon the life Jeanne is living without her best friend. As a Chinese model is snapped in various poses, Jeanne is having a completely different type of picture taken. Layers of plotting unfold onion-like, often simultaneously, as the stories of characters, separated by both time and space, are told.
At a posterior-challenging five and a half hours – which includes an hour’s worth of intervals – The Dragons’ Trilogy may not be for the faint of bottom, but it is five and a half hours of the ‘total theatre’ that, at only 27, made Robert Lepage into the theatrical heavyweight his is today and made aficionados, chatting in hushed tones, utter the word ‘genius’.
The Dragons’ Trilogy can be seen at the Barbican theatre until 25 September 2005. It is presented in French, Cantonese, Mandarin and English, with English surtitles.