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Attending Robert Lepage’s Elsinore is like watching Citizen Kane for the first time. Or more accurately, it’s like seeing Citizen Kane in 1941 for the first time. Lepage’s one-man multimedia version of Hamlet is a virtuoso exploration of a developing technological form; like Kane, it fuses astonishing technique and original artistic vision.

Elsinore premiered in Montreal in November; Lepage presented the first three acts to participants at ISEA in September. The work’s melding of performance and technology (video, computer-generated visuals, sampled and digitally treated sound) is an indication of the way Lepage is heading. In Quebec City he has acquired an old fire hall which he is converting into La Caserne—a multimedia laboratory equipped with satellite links and technology designed for live interactive performance.

The greatest virtue of Elsinore is not its array of technology. This is no production hypnotised by its own apparatus: Lepage is an artist first, technician second. Many of the other works presented at ISEA, particularly in the performance and sound fields, suffered from a heavy-handed over-use of digital techniques. Computers programmed to “play” genetic codes as music; performances swamped with digital delay and a deluge of samples; onslaughts of computer noise in the absurd name of the “post-human”…these and other travesties were vindication of Jacques Attali’s maudlin prophecy of the 1970s. The artist as cybernetician, he warned, “is transcended by his own tools”. Too often at ISEA we were left with barren sounds and spectacles: the machine playing itself.

Elsinore, then, was an enormous relief. Here was an artist who deployed technology in pursuit of an aesthetic goal. Lepage has focussed on Hamlet’s famous indecisiveness, narrowing the action into his own solitary person, using the technology to externalise the poetry and drama of the protagonist’s thought. The result, as Lepage claims, is an “X-rayed” Hamlet. While the action apparently takes place in the protagonist’s head, it occasionally has the look of an encephalogram.”

Lepage plays every character, with the exception of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are “played” by observation video cameras. The two hapless rascals are represented by their points-of-view: we see Lepage as Hamlet from the different perspectives of the cameras, projected onto screens. Digital audio treatment allows Lepage to play Claudius (his natural pitch lowered a tone or so) and Gertrude and Ophelia (raised in pitch). The dexterity of the audio technician in rapidly switching between “voices” is one of the many marvels of this production.

The presiding marvel, however, is that none of these techniques appears gimmicky; each has an integral function in the work. A Claudius speech is accompanied by a green voice analysis wave-form, projected onto Lepage’s face: this adds to the mood evoked by the character. The set is washed with grey-blue video, summoning an emotional landscape to parallel the Elsinore setting.

The music score is played live by composer Robert Caux, seated at the foot of the stage with his keyboards and equipment. The sound design incorporates synthesiser effects, quasi-period music (sampled lutes), and treatment of Lepage’s voice. The latter technique is especially effective, sampling a phrase or key word, looping and detuning it, superimposing the treatment over Lepage’s speech. The effect is used sparingly and with a poetic grace that could serve as a model for the use of sampled sound in performance.

Like Orson Welles, Lepage is at heart an illusionist; Elsinore is full of ingenious tricks achieved with minimal means. Hamlet’s doublet, undone, becomes Ophelia’s dress, which, with lighting effects and malleable stage, becomes the pond in which she drowns. Lepage uses some brazenly low-tech tricks in this hi-tech show; creaky stage machinery is at deliberate odds with the seamless electronics. A vigorous dialogue between Hamlet and Claudius is achieved via a simple block of wood as stage prop, serving as, alternatively, stool and footrest.

And, finally, the whole thing would fall in an over-ambitious heap if Lepage couldn’t act. But—most emphatically—he can (in both English and French.) His Hamlet is convincing : quiet, controlled, complex. Neither Olivier-effete nor Gibson-blustery, his is a Hamlet of the interior. And he’s not too bad at all the other characters as well.

Elsinore received a tremendous ovation at ISEA, as a work-in-progress. Such a momentous project deserves to be seen around the world. Australians can take heart that Lepage, who has toured here with Needles and Opium and Bluebeard, at least has us in mind. In describing the virtues of his new hi-tech lab, he told a Montreal magazine: “We will be working via satellite, experimenting with performances that take into account that when it’s midnight in Quebec, it’s noon in Australia.”

RealTime issue #10 Dec-Jan 1995 pg. 21

© John Potts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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