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.
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