Guest blogger Jessica Van der Veen on her recent trip to Europe and bumping into a Canadian legend.
I haven’t told you a whole lot about our adventures in the theatre. There weren’t any shows in Paris that I wanted to see, and my French isn’t up to snuff for literary theatre anyway. In Berlin we lucked out however and went to see Robert Lepage in “The Andersen Project”. Robert was there performing the play as part of a three day celebration of his work including showings of his films at Spielfest.
Robert is simply, irrespective of is prodigious writing and directing, a beautiful actor. This discovery came home in a live theatre setting even more than viewing his films. There is always the sub-knowledge when viewing film that the action took place in the past, that multiple takes give an actor multiple shots at nailing the work and that the risk is less than live performance. Watching an actor give himself over to each exposed-tooth-nerve of a moment is on a different order of excitement.
Robert is also the Gold Standard for theatre in Europe. Reviews in London, Paris, Berlin and even Venice compared contemporary theatre to Lepage. Of course in Canada he has his brilliant Quebec career, and I think a few people in BC went to see him at the Cultch one time. Most North Americans think he just canters about directing Vegas shows for Cirque de Soleil, if they think of him at all.
“The Andersen Project” is the story of a brilliantly neurotic writer, trying to navigate the Canada/Europe granting bureaucracy and beset by dog-sitting crises as he attempts to adapt Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Dryad” for the Opera. It is comical with some scathingly brilliant rants about the arts granting systems, and it is filled with the loneliest people in the world.
We loved it – and so did the German audience who got many of the jokes in English and most of the jokes in French. The staging was beyond elegant and the evening was a huge success. As we were leaving we ran into the Cultural Attaché from the Canadian Embassy who invited us upstairs to the opening night party. (Always pop in and introduce yourself when you arrive in another country – often they can advise you where and how to shop your work.) In Germany they serve an entire sit down dinner after the opening night – in this case perfectly cooked duck and lovely wine, veg, salads etc. – a medieval feast for the crowd.
So upstairs to the mezzanine bar we went, only to be given a glass of wine and have an interesting 10 minute side conversation about cultural funding and the scene for the foreign cultural service now that Harper is in power. The diplomats were very tactful, and the attachés were Canadian – not like the Visual Arts attaché who is German! What gives?
I was intensely desirous of meeting Robert – I normally couldn’t give a toss about having a small hollow interchange and will actually avoid being a sycophant. But this guy, well, I was completely happy to make a sucky little fool of myself just to say, “hello”. The show was that good. I looked across the room and saw him standing by the long dining table (glass of red wine in hand) his own brown wig returned to his head after a parade of characters had caused a parade of other wigs. His appearance really is striking – not because of the wig, but because his skin appears to be flawless. Our eyes met and he beckoned me over and motioned me to sit down across the table from him. He gave me one long look, leaned forward and hissed, “Quebecers hate Dion!”
Aaaaand we’re off! “You’re kidding!” say I. “Everyone in the West thinks that Dion was a strategic leadership choice to re-cement the Quebec vote and western Liberals just sighed and held their noses!”
“Nope! Quebecers hate him.” It was only about 20 minutes later in the conversation about Canadian politics that we bothered to come up for air and introduce ourselves.
How perceptive would you have to be to spot a Canadian tourist across the room and peg her immediately for a political junkie? He had scant interest in the NDP – but I suspect that has changed by now – they hadn’t hit Quebec radar in winter 2006, whereas now a lot of Quebecers see the NDP as a viable leftist alternative.
The conversation ranged far and wide. Robert’s director buddy Hans (tiny, gay, gorgeous and obviously possessed of a will of steel) asked about Vancouver. “Oh! That’s dreamland – where you promise yourself you’ll go and buy a nice condo on the water after your relationship breaks up. Vancouver is the perfect place to escape to.” Robert talks about Vancouver the way Vancouverites talk about Hawaii or Tofino. Neither Robert nor Hans seemed interested in hearing what a born and bred Vancouverite thought of Vancouver – and Robert’s assessment interested me, so I (uncharacteristically) kept quiet.
Hans and Robert were making preparations to head off to Newcastle to rehearse his new show which was nine hours long at that point. They seemed relaxed about it – like they wanted it nine hours long. The long table groaned with food. Conversations about art, politics, cultural production, philosophy and medical history raged around us. The seamlessness of European discourse is what I crave most when I come back to compartmentalized North America.
Around 1 am it was time to go – we’d talked, drank and eaten ourselves into oblivion. Gracious goodnights and we all disappeared out into the European night. It was very cold and clear. As we walked to the S-Bahn the air seethed with ideas and threads of thoughts glittered around me; diamonds in contrast with the gaudy sparkles of German Christmas along the frosty streets.