Thursday, 2 October 2008

The Dragons' Trilogy (1985)

Dragons’ Trilogy by Robert Lepage
Reviews on Robert Lepage’s Dragons’ Trilogy
The Internet Theatre Magazine of reviews

In 1986, The Dragons' Trilogy launched Robert Lepage's genius into the international consciousness. After twenty years of phenomenal success and recognition, this epic theatrical experience remains as moving and unique as ever. Lepage's trademarks of breathtakingly beautiful images and impressionistic narrative are reproduced to full effect. He explores generations of characters living through the shifting liminalities of race, identity and social change, to reveal the Orient beneath the surface and within the imagination. The first act, Green Dragon opens in 1910 near Quebec City's Chinatown. Two French Canadian teenagers (Françoise and Jeanne) play and laugh together, setting down a street map out of shoeboxes and peopling them with characters. In a characteristic blend of fantasy and onstage reality, they imagine an Englishman wanting to open a shoe shop who duly appears onstage. He then visits the local Chinese laundryman enquiring about shoes. The two men's entrepreneurial foray into a poker club has disastrous consequences for Jeanne's drunken, widowed father who is teetering on the edge of daily bankruptcy.

The second act, Red Dragon, follows the two girls, their domestic situations and their misfortunes against the backdrop of events with worldwide significance. A husband who is neither his wife's lover nor his daughter's biological father, a child with a disabling illness and a mother's breast cancer coincide with the broader tragedy of war.

In the final part, White Dragon, some of the fragmentation is reconciled and the action concludes in a cyclical fashion. The Englishman Crawford, now wheelchair-bound, metaphysically returns to his birthplace Hong Kong in death. The children of immigrants encounter each other across language and race barriers: Yukali (Emily Shelton), descended from an absconded American pilot and a geisha killed in Hiroshima meets Françoise's son, the conceptual artist Pierre (Hugues Frenette).

The Barbican's cavernously vast auditorium has been converted into two parallel smaller blocks of seating and thus neutralizes the theatre's usual impersonal immensity. The set is a gravel-filled space with a single lamppost at one end and a wooden booth at the other. The fine grey gravel is trudged across, dug in, and even converted into a zen garden. Images from news clips, of the skies or of details onstage are projected onto a screen at one end and adds texture to the action.

Lepage's famously dreamlike style is simple and understated. The production encompasses the broadest themes imaginable, but in such an unaffected way that it is utterly beguiling. Dances realize prophetic dream sequences or re-enact segments of the narrative in a creative and ingenious way.

At one point, two lovers in army uniform skate around the edge of the stage to the "Skaters' Waltz." As the music grows louder, they are joined by other soldiers and the patriotic, congratulatory send off quickly develops into a destructive march, trampling domestic effects and forcing helpless civilians out of their way.

The actors demonstrate a chameleon versatility with which they unrecognisably adopt different roles. The music (performed by Jean-Sébastien Côté) is hauntingly atmospheric and seamlessly integrated into the action. One particularly poignant song, "Youkali" by Kurt Weill, is full of yearning and lyrical ache for a harmonious world.

This experience will expand your theatrical outlook, making other productions look staid, conventional and mundane. The unique chance to see The Dragons' Trilogy is both a perfect introduction to Lepage's brilliance and an exceptional opportunity for fans to revisit a formative play. The stories are at once human and cosmic, and the far-reaching themes are produced imaginatively and unpretentiously.

This indescribably mesmeric production is a flawless combination of aesthetic majesty and emotional integrity. It will assail your senses, enthral and enchant you.

Review: The Dragons' Trilogy, by Robert Lepage

How can you sum up 325 minutes of theatre - that's nearly five and a half hours (albeit with three intervals) - that whirls with imagery, pulses with energy and buzzes with ideas?

At the level of narrative, The Dragons' Trilogy, now at the Barbican in London, could be summarised as a too-neat, too-circular family saga: two young French-Canadian girls living in Quebec City in the 1930s, close friends, begin the play just on the cusp of adolescence. One gets pregnant and is gambled away to become the wife of a first-generation Chinese-Canadian by the drunken barber father. The other joins the army, marries "appropriately" and has two sons. Meanwhile in Japan, a geisha is made pregnant by an abusive Englishman, who abandons her. The daughter of that baby will eventually get together with the French-Canadian's son, while the illegitimate daughter will, well not to give too much away, will suffer a nasty fate.

Yet the director, Robert Lepage, is not, you can't but feel, terribly interested in narrative, or indeed dialogue. He knows audiences expect it, crave it, and gives them the bare bones, in a sometimes naturalistic, sometimes stylised mixture of English, French, Chinese and Japanese. (There are surtitles when necessary.)

What really matters to him, however, is the stunning image, the shock of movement, the flash of light. Sometimes it is surreal. At one point a nun standing in the basket of a speeding bicycle (being ridden by the father of that illegitimate girl, still a delivery man in his home town) is shouting out the humiliation of her public trial in China after the revolution, underneath a screen image of Mao, while the married French-Canadian woman sits on the roof of a shed learning to type to a disembodies voice of an instruction manual that is actually commenting on the action, while her old friend sits and mourns the departure of her daughter.

Yet it all makes sense. Really!

The triology is staged in a pit of gravel, a brilliant touch for often what is important here is the swish of movement through it, or the stamp of (metaphor) jackboots, even the slice of ice-skates. An often underused sense often strains for full fitness. It is also a Japanese garden, a grave, our earth mother, and a parking lot that contains the history of all that came before.

So what does it all mean? I heard more than one member of the audience asking. That's where the reviewer's task gets really difficult. It would be possible to use phrases made vacuous by overuse like "choice and free will", "the flow of life", "the human condition", "the modern condition", "the female condition". Really, this is a show about life in all of its messy, and metaphorical, reality.

And it is an optimistic reality. The new generation, coming to life as the old fades away with the "white dragon" of autumn, seems to be making a better fist of it, in its glorious multicultural, multi-ethnic reality, than did their parents and grandparents.
Last time the Trilogy was produced in London, one reviewer said "See Robert Lepage and die". It is hard to disagree.

The city Limits Magazine had the following Summary of the play:

Here's an event to fall in love with. In four parts (like many fine trilogies) spanning 80 years and the breadth of Canada, this full version of The Dragons' Trilogy lasts six hours, all of which possess a visual elegance of symphonic proportions; at its best it is a breathtaking marriage of grace and emotional resonance.

Director Robert Lepage begins with a range of materials – a parking-lot kiosk, an expanse of sand, some lengths of rope – and a fundamental image or theme – an impressionistic portrait of Canada's Chinatowns in this century. From these he has woven a vast fabric in which the unlikeliest juxtapositions make for wholly unexpected cumulative effects: a typing tuition tape comments upon a character's fears, a nun recounts her mission's expulsion from Communist China while standing in the pannier of a speeding bicycle.

The experience builds insidiously from a leisurely start, drawing the audience imperceptibly into ever more intimate involvement. As the vague narratives unfold (in English, Québecois French, Chinese and Japanese) to the accompaniment of Robert Caux's haunting score, contrasts between scenes become more and more agonising, with climactic set-pieces – a savage march of victory/destruction, the simultaneous arrival of Halley's Comet and a Chinese New Year dragon ("dragon star", geddit?) – of shattering intensity. See Robert Lepage and die.

*This information is all very useful in helping us to build a picture of the productio. Please get into the habit of providing the source of any information you are quoting, or any quotes cited. You've listed the name of the publication but who wrote these reviews? Is there a link? What was the date of publication? This is all research information that we need to know...* - Liam

Posted by Lauren Tudhope

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