Robert LaPage, the Canadian veteran of large-scale theatre, has staged an intricate spectacle about memory as part of the official Edinburgh Festival. We'll get to the dementia in a minute.
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Over a quick two hours of expert storytelling, he remains the sole human presence on stage. His languid and skilful stage presence weaves a tale of personal and political memory centred on his family, his neighbours and Quebecois independence. It is a massive technical achievement built around an on-stage model of a multi-occupancy house, the 877 of the title, around which which the drama literally unfolds from childhood to today. The house and a further scale-model of a public space, allows full use of projection, technology, model-making and film to provide a stunning range of animation, dramatic movement and visual punch The show readily embraces every theatrical genre - yes, including puppetry and mime. It even comes with a kitchen sink thrown in.
Memory and Dementia
The theme of dementia is touched on in the show. Here the focus is on his grandmother who we glimpse flitting in film from miniature room to miniature room. But this feels very much a small part of a show which seems more committed to father/son and personal/political relationships. At one point an animation of the brain affected by dementia (together with some basic info on Alzheimer's) allows the house to morph into the brain itself. The use of some fantastic animation opens up all sorts of possibilities to explore dementia from multiple perspectives, which LaPage does not take.
LaPage's work is an evolving feast, which intentionally only becomes complete "when it is ready". Sometimes, as he says, it just isn't. So it may be more will be done with the way memory and place are interwoven and affected by dementia in future. But for now sadly Alzheimer's serves the function of being the bit about dementia which any long-form reflection on memory in 2015 is likely to include. The narrative moves on and the grandmother, we are told, enters a home. That's it.
Of course there is some further resonance about remembering and forgetting in a world where the past is miniaturised and narration is able to take an all-round perspective. Narrative drive also comes from both the struggle LaPage has to remember a famous protest poem by heart for a recital and the profound need never to forget those committed to activism which preserves collective identity.
And there is some intended parallel between personal and national identity but until ultimately you are left regretting the potential, of what might have been done with all the effort. Having compellingly created our interest in such specific places - his home, the neighbourhood, large public arenas and Quebec itself - why did LaPage not cut loose and commit to something less linear and literal? The show, over its length, consistently choosing spectacle over the missing depth. Perhaps ultimately LaPage lacks the confidence to pursue the big themes, including those around dementia, which are so tantalising available to him.
There is so much that could be done through multi-media, multiple layering, repetition and fragmentation in theatrical spaces to challenge, to enlighten and to enlighten. The idea of engaging creatively with dementia was maybe not the primary focus here, but in this work are the germs of an approach to dementia which could be truly creative, powerful and stimulating. But this would inevitably challenge the neatness and search for narrative cohesion which classic theatre ultimately demands and which LaPage literally embodies.
Perhaps LaPage ultimately lacks the confidence around dementia that he has around more traditional narrative and stage craft. In the meantime there is a huge amount to enjoy in the spectacle and the thoughts it provokes. Shame it was not the breakthrough show it could have been.
Main photograph credit:
The Guardian, Murdo Macleod (23.08.2015)