Robert Lepage and his company Ex Machina created The Blue Dragon in 2008 in Quebec (like all their shows), and it has since been performed in other countries, but this is the first time we have had the chance to see it in Britain. Lepage has described it as a ‘spin-off’ rather than a ‘sequel’ to his 1985 TheDragons’ Trilogy (both co-written and co-performed with Marie Michaud), the six-hour epic which made his international reputation, though it is not necessary to have seen it to enjoy this ravishing new work.
At the end of the previous play, Canadian conceptual artist Pierre Lamontagneis about to move China, and now we see him 20 years later as a gallery owner in Shanghai. Not only has he changed career but the country itself has transformed from early post-Mao reform to a full-blown market economy with Western-style consumerism co-existing uneasily with communist control.
The show focuses on the triangular relationship between Lamontagne and two women: his former wife Claire Forêt, a hard-drinking advertising executive in Canada who is visiting China to adopt a baby, and his young Chinese lover and artist protégée Xiao Ling who is pregnant with his child. This complicated scenario reflects the dichotomy in his attitude towards West and East, leading to a brilliantly conceived coup de théâtre of three alternative endings.
The Blue Dragon is more compact than much of Lepage’s work, running at under two hours and focusing more on the emotional relations of its three protagonists than on social issues, though as usual there is a strong sense of the global background to individual lives. And indeed personal and public are likely to literally collide as Lamontagne’s gallery is due to be bulldozed as part of the commercial redevelopment of Shanghai, when many will be forcibly relocated. In this brave new China even historical episodes of patriotic communism are now used to advertise KFC.
As always from such a master of ‘total theatre’, this is a high-production value, multidisciplinary show, but the technology does not overpower the human aspect. The style is almost cinematic at times, with a ‘letter-box’, wide-screen presentation and stunning jump cuts, with Lepage directing with great fluidity as the scene shifts from airport to loft apartment, and from railway station to nightclub. There are many beautiful and arresting images, especially with screened calligraphy and tattoos, as well as an illuminated model train traversing the stage and slow-moving bicycles giving a sense of environment.
As Lamontagne, Lepage portrays a man who, after running away from issues he has always been afraid to confront, has now hit a mid-life crisis when he has to make big decisions about his future. Michaud too shows us how Claire has reached acrisis point, materially successful but emotionally undernourished. As well as giving Xiao Ling’s desperation a punky rebelliousness, Tai Wei Foo also performs several Chinese cultural dance sequences which she choreographed.
Together with the flexible set design of Michel Gauthier, colourful projections of David Leclerc, imaginative sound of Jean-Sébastien Côté and ambient lighting of Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun, Lepage has once again transcended boundaries to achieve theatrical alchemy.