Telescope & Mirror to the Self

At the Wiener Festwochen, Robert Lepage’s play The Far Side of the Moon explores reflections of theater and outer space

Actor Yves Jacques travels nimbly between memory and imagination | Photo: Sophie Grenier

The Wiener Festwochen, running from  May 13th to June 19th, really do deliver on their promise: they bring world-class contemporary theater to the city, dressed up in a hip marketing strategy. The ticketing staff and audience are “radical chic”. We can all feel part of a cosmopolitan, artistic avant-garde, at least for an evening.

Fittingly, narcissism is also the central theme of Robert Lepage’s play, The Far Side of the Moon. Lepage, a Québecois, is a dramatic jack-of-all-trades; he writes, acts, directs films and plays, designs sets, and runs the versatile production company Ex Machina. And he revolutionizes whatever he does. Among his many awards is the coveted Prix Europe of the Festival de l’Union des Théatres de l’Europe. Luckily, he is also somewhat of a regular at the Wiener Festwochen: This is the third year in a row that his work is represented. And this year he staged his most famous solo play at the Burgtheater: The Far Side of the Moon has toured the world for over ten years, initially acted by Lepage himself, now played by Yves Jacques, the only actor whom Lepage trusts with his roles.

“Until the invention of the telescope, people believed the moon was one gigantic mirror,” Yves Jacques begins as narrator, before slipping into the play’s characters. It is the story of two middle-aged brothers, struggling to cope with their mother’s recent death, and with their feelings of rivalry and incomprehension for one another. The brothers are “mirror opposites”: Philippe is introverted, single, and depressed about his mediocre existence as a cultural studies lecturer at a second-rate university in Quebec. André is sharp-tongued, flamboyant and wealthy, and has a huge sense of self-importance; he is a national figure by virtue of his position as TV weather presenter.

Yet Philippe has a deep passion: the Cold War space race, about which he is writing his thesis. The contest, his theory goes, was fuelled not by scientific inquiry, but by human narcissism:  “We look up to the sky and expect to see ourselves.” Space exploration becomes a metaphor for self-exploration, and the race between the Cold War superpowers substitutes for the brothers’ competition for their mother’s affection. Philippe’s sympathies clearly lie with the Soviets: “I wonder how they coped with being number two.”

Yves Jacques slips nimbly between the characters, rendering quick changes of mood with remarkable versatility and nuance, from Philippe’s half sad, half light-hearted self-deprecation, to André’s understated campness and his subtle enjoyment of being dislikable. As a result of Jacques’ acting, and the script’s brilliant lightness of touch, the play is often hilarious, as when Philippe, after a few drinks in a bar, bursts into a diatribe against his brother:

“He’s pathetic! He thinks that’s what the Earth looks like from space, with arrows that show him where things go: Here’s Kosovo, and here’s South Africa, and here’s the Gaza Strip, and here’s Québec, and there’s Canada with all its provinces, and the worst thing that can happen in the world is rainfall or hale.”

The set is as parsimonious and versatile as the Hubble Space Telescope: a large screen of mirrors revolves around its horizontal axis; when the mirrors are upturned, we see only a metal frame with neon tubes. They illumine modern interiors which, in their bleak functionality, resemble space stations: Philippe’s apartment; the university lecture hall; the gym. The backdrop is a black-board wall featuring a single circular window which doubles as a washing machine door and spaceship bulls-eye. However, the simple stage is transformed into a fantastical space by a sophisticated use of video projection, puppetry, and mime, enabling flashes into the past and into Philippe’s imagination.

Lepage confounds genre expectations, playing ably on both cinematographic and dramatic registers. In this he is aided by the perceptive sound-design by Laurie Anderson. Projections enable a “mirrored” viewpoint, for instance when Philippe turns his back to the audience to peer through the washing machine door, the video frames Philippe from the opposite side: We are shown his face, staring through the glass as though through a space-shuttle window.

Suddenly, the window opens; Philippe climbs through, physically disappearing from view, but entering – as the projection shows – the interior of a space-shuttle. Ingeniously, the video mimics the shaky and pixelated aesthetic of 1970s handy-cams, used by NASA crews to broadcast their adventures to television audiences on Earth. Similarly, when Philippe undergoes an MRI scan (again, inserted into the multi-functional bulls-eye), shortly after his doctor tells him that his mother in fact committed suicide by over-medication, the projection shows us Philippe’s horrified, blank stare as he lies in the scanner, overlaid with footage from a childhood birthday party.

Lepage’s use of mixed media thus creates a densely associative, psychological reality, in which memories and imagination intersect with the characters’ actions in the narrative present.

But nor is Lepage reliant on fancy digital technology: Most flashbacks are achieved elegantly through analogue means: Significant objects are conduits into the past. Notably, when Philippe comes across his mother’s high heels among the clothes she left behind, he tentatively tries them on.  After a sudden change of lighting, he is transformed: There is his mother, restored to youth, in a dress, headscarf, and sunglasses, swaying to 1960s Doo Wop. She struts across the stage and starts emptying the washing machine (as women do, apparently). But after a few knickers, she pulls an embryonic astronaut, in full spacesuit and helmet, out of the womb-like washing machine. She caps the metallic umbilical cord which connects the space-puppet to his mother ship, caresses him, dances with him at her chest, and guides him as he takes his first steps on this planet. The scene is powerful, even iconic, although (or, perhaps precisely because) Yves Jacques’ masculine build makes for a clunky, drag-queen mum.

But it is the final scene that best exemplifies Lepage’s ability to create complex images with simple means: Philippe is waiting in an airport lounge, about to return to Canada after an abortive trip to Moscow, where he was supposed to present his thesis, but failed to show up on time. Gradually, to the trickling sound of Chopin, Philippe begins to levitate, looping and spiraling through the air as though gravity had been turned off and Philippe had finally reached space. Ironically, this was made possible precisely with the aid of gravity: Yves Jacques was in fact writhing on the floor, but appeared to be in vertical space thanks to the screen of mirrors which, set at an angle to the stage floor, relayed Jacques’ movements to the spellbound audience. As such, Lepage has created one of the most memorable images in theatre that I have come across.

The mirror is an inescapable companion, not only in The Far Side of the Moon, but in theatre itself. Ultimately, audience and actors confront each other through a mirror: Each exists by virtue of the other. Thus, there is the predicament that theatre will always nurture the vanity of the spectator, whose voyeurism is not only tolerated, but solicited.

Peter Handke sought to combat this with his Publikumsbeschimpfungen (Scolding the Audience) (1966), a one-act play culminating in the actors shouting abuse at the audience. Robert Lepage has subtler methods: Twice in The Far Side of the Moon, the forth wall between stage and audience is broken; first, when Philippe addresses the audience directly during his university lecturer, and again when André presents his television weather show.

But both these instances are highly stylised forms of interaction, those of the lecture and the television programme. By contrast, when Philippe has his most honest moment, speaking to an empty auditorium in Moscow, he stands almost with his back to the audience in the theatre. Of course, he speaks about narcissism: If people could really stand on the far side of the moon, with their backs to the Earth, and confront the vast emptiness of space, only then would they be able to see beyond themselves, and maybe start caring for one another. This begs the question: Can the audience ever stop seeing their own concerns reflected on stage, and truly engage with the Other?

This, of course, was Brecht’s concern also. His didactic theatre aims to engage audiences with human suffering and struggles that may be very alien to them. But, while Lepage raises the same question, he seems to answer it negatively for himself. In the programme leaflet, Lepage explains of The Far Side of the Moon that “the immense disillusionment that lies at the heart of this work is the realisation that the world is not the way we were told it was at drama school; it’s rather the opposite. […] We were taught that theatre was a means of combat; as Brecht put it, ‘the theatre is not a mirror, but a hammer’. And because I was still very young, I believed it.” Lepage goes on to reveal that both brothers are reflections of himself as he struggled to cope with the death of his mother.

For Lepage, then, we can’t transcend the gigantic mirror to stand on the far side of the moon. However, we can choose to challenge and re-fashion the mirrors we peer into. Accordingly, Philippe struggles to dislodge his idea of how his mother saw him, as second best to his younger brother. “The vertigo of looking into empty space,” Philippe says in the Moscow auditorium, “is the same as when both one’s parents have died; only then do we realise that they were obscuring the horizon.” With this realisation, Philippe is able to overcome his jealousy towards his brother, paving the way to reconciliation. If the task of theatre is to fashion mirrors for its audience – mirrors of empathy,  irony and surprise – then Lepage’s looking glass is one to go through.

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