Robert Lepage, actor, cineaste, dramaturge and director, is frequently listed, with Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil, as one of Quebec's leading exports. While this association may seem unflattering, Lepage nonetheless ranks high among Canadian and Quebecois artists whose international success and reputation make them key players on the global circuit.
Awarded, along with Peter Zadek, the Europe Theatre Prize in April 2007, Lepage and his Quebec-based multidisciplinary production company Ex Machina continue to wow film, theatre and opera audiences from Japan to New York City. In this timely study, Aleksandar Sasa Dundjerovic provides an informative and highly readable behind-the-scenes look at Lepage's theatre world. As part of a series on performance practitioners, the emphasis here is not on a theoretical, critically analytical study of Lepage's productions. It aims instead to provide background and insight into the work of a key theatre-maker.
The author, a theatre practitioner himself, brings to this book his extensive personal knowledge of Lepage's work, as well as his own solid practical and theoretical background. Dundjerovic is well placed to supply what the series promises - "namely a first step towards critical understanding and an initial exploration" of Lepage and Ex Machina.
He begins with a "cultural and artistic" biography, a key element in the understanding of a staunchly separatist Quebecker who is, nonetheless, a self-declared Canadian. Of particular importance are the accounts of Lepage's encounters with performance practitioners and artists such as Anna Halprin, Alain Knapp and Peter Gabriel, which not only shaped his work but also established him in the global cultural network.
Dundjerovic successfully weaves biographical information into his analysis of Lepage's theatre, outlining, for example, the adaptation of Halprin's RSVP cycles to the format of Lepage's Theatre Repere.
The next chapter looks at this "devising" process in more detail, explaining Lepage's work with actors and other players, such as technicians, who are essential to the process given his reliance on multimedia and his belief that "theatre is a meeting place for different arts". The subsequent discussion of The Dragons' Trilogy, a quadrilingual production that spans three cities and five decades, successfully demonstrates the layering of languages, cultures, places and theatre craft, including technology, that typify Lepage's work.
The final, and longest, chapter focuses on "practical workshop and rehearsal techniques". While perhaps of interest to actors and a feature common to this series, it is unclear whether the numerous exercises, explained in detail and illustrated with photographs, are unique to Lepage or even an essential element of his technique. Dundjerovic discusses his own use of this workshop technique, but more time could have been spent instead on Lepage's global success or a synopsis of his productions.
While Dundjerovic occasionally suggests the contrary, there is not a dearth of scholarship on Lepage. This study nevertheless addresses the need for an introduction to his work, especially for students who may have limited access to his productions as few of the texts are published. While readers may struggle with some rather obscure phrases, the study is mostly devoid of jargon and has a glossary.
Scholars may point to some oversimplifications, such as those found in Dundjerovic's discussion of Lepage's Quebecois and/or Canadian identity and the influence of this on his work - but then they are not the intended audience of the series. In sum, this book provides a useful introduction to the theatre world of a global superstar, whose productions challenge, thrill and speak to audiences worldwide in the many languages of the theatre and through the magic of the Ex Machina arsenal.
By Aleksandar Sasa Dundjerovic. Routledge, 192pp, £60.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9780415375191 and 5207. Published 20 November 2008