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Robert Lepage pulls out all the stops in '887'. (Because we forget so much.) #HF17

Twenty-five Canadians are listed for design and production of sound, video, music, lighting and stage technology. Nine Canadians are working behind the scenes for two hours. During those two hours, one Canadian is on stage. In front of six hundred spectators. What those 35 people all pulled together tickles your imagination and tells you something essential about our history. Because we forget so much, so quickly.

A theatre solo by Robert Lepage is not a matter of travelling across the country with a suitcase full of props. A theatrical solo by Robert Lepage is a mega-work of art entirely in the service of the story. A work of art that can only achieve the impact it has in that way. Such a theatrical solo by Robert Lepage is thus above all not a solo, but a spectacle of industrial proportions.

Peeking in from across the street

Lepage tells the story of his childhood in Quebec, the French-speaking part of Canada. He does so on an empty stage, aided only by a rectangular, slightly more than man-sized box. On the outside, the box looks like the facade of the apartment building where he lived with his brother, two sisters and parents. Behind the windows, thanks to a combination of video and dollhouse furniture, we see how the residents' lives unfold. You see that, like you see your own neighbour's life on a dark night. Realistic, small, detailed. That alone is a feat of engineering.

The box can do much more. The box is a projection screen as well as a decor. It can open, allowing it to be used in a small kitchen or coffee stand changes. Or the garage where Robert Lepage's father listened to music from the United States in his taxi.

Wonder drum

To us, connoisseurs of Calvinist Dutch theatre in which any set piece, let alone any realism, is easily suspect, Lepage's wonder drum seems overkill. Yet all this technical perfection and all this realism is necessary. Not that Robert Lepage would not be able to make a hall of six hundred spectators hang on his every word on his own and without all these aids. The man is a born storyteller and an excellent actor. One of those that immediately makes you feel like you are visiting him, rather than sitting in a theatre. He is also a performer who at times almost Toon Hermans-like engagingly ostentatious with you, verging on bitchy.

His wonder box, and what it produces in terms of images and sounds, adds documentary value. He also provides carnival, which is quite important in a two-hour monologue. The story also goes beyond Lepage's own autobiography. And that is a story we had completely forgotten. The documentary means, the extreme attraction value, the collective oh, ah shouting at so much ingenuity: this has more impact than a TV movie or a sober solo in a small theatre. The six hundred people who attended this, Friday night the 16th of June, really learnt something.

Arm press

We think we know the Canadian only as our Trees' besotted husband in yet another broadcast of Spoorloos. We like with thousands at a time the video in which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wins an arm wrestling contest from Donald Trump. But we had completely forgotten that in the 1970s, terror was also the order of the day in Canada, but especially Quebec, as it was in Europe. We never gave much thought to the near-civil war between francophone and anglophone Canadians over Quebec's independence. A battle that ended in a draw for the time being, following a referendum in 1995.

So a show like this is co-produced by twenty-two theatres and festivals worldwide. Not only to make it financially possible, but also because they all feel that something like this is desperately needed. If only to make us aware of the social Alzheimer's that makes us forget what seemed an eternal truth a generation ago.

Good to know
887 by Robert Lepage can still be seen on Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 June. Information.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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