The Dragons' Trilogy

Marie Brassard, Jean Casault, Lorraine Côté, Marie Gignac, Robert Lepage and Marie Michaud
Barbican Theatre

Publicity image

There is something seductive and addictive about Robert Lepage's mammoth works such as The Dragons' Trilogy and the even longer Seven Streams of the River Ota that can leave fans sounding like Oliver Twist. It is hard to believe that after five and a half hours in a not terribly comfortable theatre you could possibly want to say it but an immediate reaction as the lights finally go down, is "Please sir, I want some more".

This event is the first in The Young Vic's Young Genius Season in which first works by distinguished playwrights of the last half-Millennium are grouped together.

If nothing else, it brings home the fact that Lepage really did deserve the term young genius when, as a 27 year-old, he was the moving force behind this unbelievably ambitious trilogy. He didn't seem to realise that first plays are supposed to be two-handers that only last for an hour or so. Twenty years on, the prodigious trilogy is still fresh, moving and unforgettable.

In fact, Lepage and his Ex Machina Group have always worked and devised plays collectively and he is only one of six credited with writing this piece. There is little doubt though about the source of the original artistic motivation as the cycle has remarkable intelligence and that "life in a day" quality that marks the best of Lepage's work.

Similarly, Ex Machina, still directed by Lepage, who made an appearance to enthusiatic applause at the final curtain call, does not assign parts to the eight-strong acting company in the programme. This review acknowledges their universal excellence but follows suit.

Helpfully for viewers, almost at the end of the marathon, the writer provides a shorthand summary of what he has been trying to achieve. In a scene of great visual beauty, a Lepage strength, we see two characters from the fourth generations of Canadian and Asian families finding each other. They do so bringing together a Western style art installation symbolising "the entire universe in a small room" and three simple Eastern paintings of different-coloured dragons drawn from an inner world.

The first play, The Green Dragon, opens, initially rather slowly, in a small town in French-speaking Quebec during the 1930s. It focuses on a combination of rich and colourful characters. We see a barber who spends his money on drink and gambling, an English shoemaker searching for custom, an undertaker and a Chinese father and son.

In three different languages, the inhabitants go about their daily business and it becomes clear that the Chinese launderer and his upwardly-mobile son have far more influence than their immigrant status and residence in the city's Chinatown ghetto would suggest.

Youthful jollity is added by Jeanne and Françoise, the barber's daughter and her cousin who dream vividly and eventually carry the story forward to its conclusion fifty years later. By the end of this section, Jeanne is pregnant by a ginger-haired man for whom she will always feel pangs of love. However, rather than marrying him, she is passed to the young Chinaman Lee Wong in a poker game that also costs her father his barber's shop.

The longest dragon is the white one set initially in wartime and then the 1950s. We now move further east to Tokyo where a geisha becomes pregnant, almost re-enacting the story of Madam Butterfly. In parallel, we see Jeanne's life and the tragedy of her daughter, starry Stella, who is struck by meningitis and becomes little more than a human vegetable.

At the same time, Françoise is in the army and thereafter becomes desperate for a child that proves all too elusive. There is a particularly beautiful scene set on 6th August, 1955, the 10th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and remembering that tragic day. Such wonderful images are one of Lepage's great strengths.

After the third and longest interval, The Red Dragon takes place in the late 1980s. The last of the old dies with the opium-addicted English shoe seller whose life follows the symbolic course of Halley's Comet.

Françoise is by now the sole survivor of the pre-war days. She devotedly looks after the middle-aged Stella but of more importance to her is the happiness of the son Pierrot, for whom she waited for so long. The uplifting finale sees his meeting with the beautiful granddaughter of the geisha and their stunning final, phallic tug-of-war which at long last unites East and West.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher