A CONTROVERSIAL REVIEW OF ROBERT LEPAGE’S ‘LIPSYNCH’

Review throw-back: 6th August, 2012.

Nearly every review of ‘Lipsynch’ that I’ve read has been overwhelmingly positive. The words ‘epic’ and ‘masterpiece’ in particular are doing the rounds of papers and blogs everywhere. But when the audience leapt to their feet last night after nine hours of the show, I stayed seated with a feeling of low-level alarm, confused by the standing ovation around me. In the foyer afterwards, and on Facebook, I heard awe and appreciation for the production, and I felt that I needed to think about why I didn’t share their opinions. Turns out, that ‘why’ was quite convoluted. Apologies for the length. Brevity was never my forte.

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I should preface this ramble by saying that I saw ‘The Blue Dragon’ at the Melbourne Festival in 2010 and loathed it. I had the strong feeling of watching an extremely average film populated by tedious characters mincing through affected white-bread crises of self, which had for no apparent reason been transposed to the stage. Don’t get me wrong. The set was spectacular. The lighting was stunning. But there was a reason that the applause for the cast was lukewarm at best, but it swelled to cheering once the mechs stepped onstage. We applauded the set changes, not the story.

So of course, when I booked for ‘Lipsynch’, this experience was in the back of my mind. But I’m not totally cynical. Not yet. I love being moved by theatre. It’s the best feeling in the world. I can count on one hand the number of shows that left me breathless, with goosebumps rocketing down my arms and lightning coursing through my limbs, but I am always, always hoping for that experience again. I hope for it every time I step through the doors of a theatre. I’d read enough reviews that called ‘Blue Dragon’ ‘bloodless’ and ‘Lipsynch’ ‘a masterpiece’ to buoy me with the hope of excellence. Plus, the idea of nine hours of theatre was enough of a novelty to have me waving a credit card at the Arts Centre, crying ‘Shut up and take my money!’

So on Sunday afternoon, a group of friends and I wandered into the (remarkably empty) State Theatre. The lights dimmed. A woman stepped onstage in front of a set of red curtains. The strings of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 swelled from the speakers. I fucking love Gorecki. I particularly fucking love the Symphony No. 3. It’s also known as the ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.’ It’s about motherhood, about separation from one’s parent, about loss and war and grief. It’s stunning. For these reasons, it is also overused, but that’s understandable. It’s musical shorthand for beauty. But in the same way that when an actor steps onstage to play Hamlet, you find yourself thinking ‘Dude, you’d better nail those soliloquies’, when Rebecca Blakenship opened her mouth, I thought ‘Lady, if you pull this off, I will love you forever. But please don’t mess this up.’ And look, she was fine. The woman has a good voice. There’s no way I could sing that part. But her vibrato on the high notes was so wide that the notes became muddy, and she couldn’t support the crescendo passages for long enough – the phrases ended abruptly and breathlessly. I only harp on about this because it served as quite an apt gauge of the production as a whole – what should have been profound and beautiful and moving consistently failed to soar.

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Having said that, I must admit that the first hour of the show had some excellent moments. After the initial aria, the production opens with an airplane at night – skeletal, quiet and alien in the way that only long distance flight can be. Most of the passengers are seen in silhouette against the cabin, but a warm glow bathes the face of a young woman, presumably asleep, cradling a swaddled child. Ada (Blakenship) stops alongside her, carefully replaces a dropped toy and walks on. Time passes. The flight attendant tries to rouse the woman. She can’t. She’s dead. The realisation dawns in silence, travels up the plane. It’s a moment of quiet, sad beauty – there is something devastating about an experience so vast as death occurring in the sky, in the liminal space of an aircraft. If the moment had ended here, it would have been perfect. But it doesn’t. A doctor is called. The woman is placed in the aisle. The doctor, in the least committed CPR scene of all time, administers two breaths and about six compressions, then sits back on his heels, shaking his head. A blanket is placed over the body. What began as a haunting moment becomes a mute pantomime of ‘Things That Happen When Someone Dies, As Lifted From Every Hollywood Movie Ever.’

This approach characterises the entire production. The sentence that sprung most regularly to my mind across the hours was ‘Guys, we get it. WE GET IT.’ I’m not a particularly demanding audience member, but I loathe being patronised. And the makers of ‘Lipsynch’ seemed to be in constant terror that the dark faces in the auditorium wouldn’t understand exactly what was happening at all times. It’s a presumptuous approach to take, to assume that your audience aren’t intelligent enough to read subtlety, and the result was that every revelation was repeated at least twice, often three times. One of the three major characters, Jeremy, (Rick Miller) is in phone contact with an overseas dubbing studio where his ex-lover, Maria (Nuria Garcia), is recording final dialogue for the film he has directed. She gets halfway through the scene when the cries of a child are heard. ‘What’s that?’ he asks the studio tech. ‘It’s Maria’s baby’, she replies. That’s the revelation. But then, just in case we weren’t paying attention, Maria goes and gets the baby, holds it onstage. And THEN, in a moment that cried out for some timpani to follow it, Jeremy cries out ‘Maria has a baby?!’. Blackout. Interval.

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This kind of over-articulation happens constantly. The visual reiteration is irritating, but when it occurs in the dialogue, it is annoying beyond belief. The writing in this show is just appalling. Truly. Hans Piesbergen, as a neurosurgeon named Thomas, announces to his wife Ada (Blakenship), ‘I’ve spent so long looking into other peoples’ brains. It’s time I started looking into mine.’ To which she responds, after a weighty pause – ‘Perhaps you should also look… into your soul.’ Later, Piesbergen returns again as a film actor having trouble with a crying scene. He finally gets the tears rolling, and when the AD asks what made him find the emotion, he replies with a sassy toss of the head, ‘I was thinking about what will happen to my career after this film is released’, and flounces off. The emotion in this production, whether humour or tragedy, is almost entirely this shallow, histrionic, melodramatic and obvious. At one point, Jeremy (Miller, as one of the more major characters – the son of Lupe, adopted by Ada) makes a speech to the supporters of his film, based heavily on his own life. ‘It’s about language’, he says, ‘about communication. About our failures to connect with each other. And about how when language falls away, music fills the gap, allows us to truly communicate.’ Why, it’s almost as though it’s the theme of the play we’re watching. The script for ‘Lipsynch’ was devised by the cast in conjunction with Lepage, and it shows. It is consistently obvious, clunky and undercooked.

Even down to the micro level, the details of plot shifts feel convenient, rather than researched. When a woman named Michelle is discharged from psych hospital, a doctor confides to her sister that ‘We really don’t think she’s ready to go home, but you know how it is. We need the beds.’ Thank goodness, for now Michelle can spent thirty minutes poking around a bookshop chatting to customers, having occasional hallucinations of a priest and a small child, and re-connecting with strangers, culminating in a heart-warming poetry reading where a young male student discovers the power of poetry through rap, and Michelle reads a terribly earnest poem of her own composition called ‘And I did not die.’ Later, Lupe – the young girl who dies on the plane in the first scene – recounts the horrors of being raped by her pimp and a gang of men when she arrives in Germany, having been sold as a sex slave by her uncle (those darn Nicaraguans, with their lack of family values). And while Nuria Garcia throws her best at the tear-stricken monologue, I couldn’t stop thinking ‘There is absolutely no way that a pimp who’s just paid $100 more for this girl because she’s a virgin would waste a golden financial opportunity by raping her before her first client.’ Cynical, yes. But details are important. If we are to love and care for these characters for the better part of a day, we need to believe them. We need to find truth in them. We need to see ourselves in them.

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But we don’t. Or at least, I didn’t. I was honestly staggered by how low the stakes managed to remain across the performance. Rhythmically, each section (of which there were 9, each focussing on a single character) settled into a rambling stasis, and even moments of supposed crisis – the discovery of a lover in bed with another man; confessions of abuse; tantrums and storm-outs – felt oddly flat, as though the actors felt awkward committing too hard to tacky shadow-screen bed-beating fits of rage, to tearful booze-soaked collapses, to emotional peaks pitched too high for the soap-opera pseudo-drama that preceded them. One moment that did manage to make me actually shift in my seat came in the form of unexpected, thundering bass music as prostitutes strutted on the Reeperbahn, and I only reacted because of how loud it was. I had precisely five moments of delight in ‘Lipsynch.’ The first five or so minutes on the plane; an excellent piece of multi-casting with Piesbergen playing three beauracrats on the phone to Ada; some sly misdirection that had a baby become a man in three smartly executed movements; a moment where nine or so disparate pieces of set came together in the eye of a projected camera as a table; and a stunning five minute performance by John Cobb as an elderly woman struggling with the loss of her memory. For a nine-hour show, the ratio isn’t exactly inspiring.

The word ‘epic’ has been constantly thrown at ‘Lipsynch.’ It’s not. To me, at least, an ‘epic’ requires more than sheer length and multitudes of characters. I understand ‘epic’ in terms of emotional scale, of stakes, of characters pushed into situations that force them to change fundamentally, and to make choices that they struggle to justify to others and to themselves. These characters do not struggle. The Bad Guys are Bad Guys the whole way through – the abusers abuse, and are cruel and dishonest; the sex slavers are abusive, cruel, dishonest AND they drink drive. Lupe, the doomed child-mother, torn from her idyllic South American lifestyle, forced into sex slavery, is so entirely good that the final image of the play, in which she is cradled in the arms of her son in a sort of reversed Pieta, reads as eye-rollingly obvious. The Christ-like figure, abused and innocent, sacrificed to the whims of cruel man.

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I think that all truly affecting storytelling is characterised by a strong understanding of juxtaposition. As humans, we seem naturally drawn to the aesthetic pleasure of opposites. When combining colours, we find pleasure in hues that are opposite in the colour wheel. We find quiet more intimate when it comes as a lull from noise. We laugh hardest when we’ve just been crying. And in an ‘epic’, we find beauty and profundity in the moments of small, quiet humanity. Take ‘Toy Story 3’. The scene in the incinerator at the end? Epic. The entire toy cast of that film is sliding inexorably towards a gaping maw of fiery destruction. There’s not much more epic than that. But the moment left audiences utterly harrowed? It’s the moment where the characters turn towards each other with quiet acceptance and hold hands. No passionate declarations of love, no yelling, no crying. Amidst all the chaos, smoke and enthusiastic use of the horn section in the score, it is the simplicity and elegance of that simple, unaffected gesture that ruined audiences. Heck, it ruined me. I had to take off two pairs of glasses (3D and regular) in order to properly weep.

‘Lipsynch’ lacks this understanding. These characters may flail their arms about, and spout clichéd dialogue, but they never sustain anything approaching a moment of quiet, subtle truth. They do not change, they do not grow, and so as an audience, we discover nothing. We sit in the presence of humans onstage for nine hours, without uncovering anything of the humanity of the characters, and thus, without uncovering anything of the humanity of ourselves.

All images by Jacques Collin, as far as I could tell – people seem to be especially terrible at crediting the photographs from this show.

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