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all in the voice

marie-anne mancio: robert lepage’s lipsynch

Marie-Anne Mancio has a doctorate in live art and writes fiction. She participated in the RealTime review-writing workshop at Arnolfini’s In Between Time Festival in Bristol, 2006.

Nuria Garcia, Lipsynch Nuria Garcia, Lipsynch
photo Érick Labbé
AS PART OF HIS COLLABORATIVE WORKING PROCESS FOR LIPSYNCH—IMPROVISATION, ACTORS AS CO-CREATORS, MULTIPLE AUTHORS, AN ABSENCE OF SCRIPTS—DIRECTOR ROBERT LEPAGE ASKED PARTICIPANTS TO BRING A TEXT OR OBJECT TO REHEARSALS. DRAMATURGY CONSULTANT MARIE GIGNAC’S CONTRIBUTION WAS AN 8MM SILENT FILM OF HER FATHER WHO DIED WHEN SHE WAS THIRTEEN. THIS DEVELOPED INTO “MARIE” WHERE A CHARACTER’S ASPHASIA RESULTS IN HER FORGETTING THE SOUND OF HER FATHER’S VOICE. MARIE (FRÉDÉRIKE BÉDARD) THINKS IF SHE CAN JUST DISCOVER WHAT HE SAID, SHE’LL RECOVER HIM.

But when she hires a woman to lip-read old film reels, she’s disappointed by the meaningless exchanges. “It’s pretty banal”, she says; “That’s life”, the woman shrugs. Persisting, Marie asks an actor to dub her father. After three hilarious attempts (he sounds like a dalek, “a Martian in Bugs Bunny”, a drunk) she tries it herself. A voice comes from nowhere; her father’s voice. “The voice is inside you”, her sister says.

This is just one of the stories from nine characters unfolding over nine hours. The first concerns opera singer Ada (Rebecca Blankenship) who witnesses the death of a young mother on a plane and goes on to adopt the orphan she calls Jeremy. Another shows Jeremy’s (Rick Miller) quest to make a film about his dead mother; another Detective Inspector Jackson (John Cobb) investigating a suspicious death and trying to find a tango partner to replace his wife; yet another a raucous funeral. As with all Lepage’s epics, Lipsynch is more an event than a show. The Barbican theatre is packed, there’s a sense audience members are fans happy to share chocolate and opinions while they watch an increasingly layered narrative explore voice, language and speech as discrete entities.

In order to concentrate on the notion that voice is genetic (almost part of the fabric of the soul, whereas language or speech is encultured) Lepage courageously eschews the stunning visuals for which he is known. So, sets are witty and efficient—the side of a plane morphing into a train—but not spectacular. Instead, there is a glut of sound from singing to speeches, to a baby’s cries, to advertisements, to canned laughter. In a Los Angeles restaurant, conversation is punctuated with simultaneous translation and ringing telephones. Characters switch languages as do actors—text is in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian. On occasion, where surtitles are unclear, we are immersed in pure sound and sometimes, as Jeremy tells us, music transcends failing language. As her son departs for California, Ada sings from Górecki’s Symphony no. 3 the lament in which the Virgin Mary asks Jesus dying on the cross to “Share your wounds with your mother.” In other episodes we learn: we can speak without saying anything (President Bush is quoted); the content of speech—however plaintive or important—can be reduced to an analysis of harmonics and frequency; by recording permutations for British Rail announcements, you could read your own obituary. And death does not mean your body stops farting.

To its immense credit, Lipsynch is often very funny, moving, insightful and never boring. It deserves multiple viewings to appreciate all of its references and nuances, the motifs of loss, of absent fathers, biblical characters, dualism; the incredible performers who take us on journeys as their multi-faceted roles age, change context or gain knowledge. Yet for all that, and for its previous incarnation in Newcastle as a five and a half hour work-in-progress, it doesn’t quite cohere. Perhaps it’s because the narrative’s emotional treatment of prostitution, its insistence on victims, is overbearing even in the context of nine hours. Despite Sarah Kemp’s faultless acting, her role is such a cliché it’s almost parodic (she’s a street prostitute, formerly drug-addicted, sexually abused, raped, self-harming victim of incest, but too honest to steal).

Later, in Nicaragua, we witness the fate of Lupe (Nuria Garcia), Jeremy’s birth mother, who is just 15 when her uncle sells her to sex traffickers for $600. The two stories are subtly linked (Sarah is from Manchester, Lupe is in a German brothel dancing to Manchester band Joy Division; there’s the possibility that punter “Tony” who demands Lupe’s services is the same Tony who raped his sister Sarah as a child). Even accepting the premise of their inclusion (giving a voice to those who do not have one), this begins to feel like a cross between harrowing documentary and bad soap opera. Only when the tone, rather than content, of speech is emphasised (as in the comic scene where the middle class presenter of a radio show asks Sarah and male escort AJ inane, prurient questions) are we reminded of Lepage’s intention to emphasise the difference between internal voice and language as learned behaviour. The other ideas in those episodes—reinventing oneself through voice; the impact of accents; how the car, voicemail and microwave speak but humans fail to communicate—appear incidental.

Conversely, the parts that resonate most are those where narrative is secondary and where the interplay between voice and image is explored (which is, after all, what lip synching is). When Jeremy turns filmmaker, sound and image are divorced and remarried. Foley artists recreate every effect; dialogue is dubbed into French. At neurosurgeon Thomas’ (Hans Piesbergen) request, Marie tries to give names to child-like chalk drawings and says “arab” rather than “arbre”, noting the difference one letter can make to signification. Head bandaged post-operation, Marie sings Gregorian chant into a machine. The patterns made by her voice are projected onto the screen behind in a series of vertical lines on graph paper. They accumulate into thicker marks as echoes increase; lines like bundles of sticks across the page. In disturbed sister Michelle’s story (Lise Castonguay), shapes press against transparent clinic walls as she hears voices; later snow falls against a bookstore where poetry readings are held and a girl in an orange dress hopscotches along the pavement to the sound of traffic.

Lipsynch is truly magical for its metaphysical enquiries. Where do lost and forgotten memories go? Do men stammer more because they are more vulnerable? Is God just the human brain’s best creation? These moments make us want to keep listening.


Ex Machina/Théâtre Sans Frontières, Lipsynch, direction/text Robert Lepage, performance/text Frédérike Bédard, Carlos Belda, Rebecca Blankenship, Lise Castonguay, John Cobb, Nuria Garcia, Sarah Kemp, Rick Miller, Hans Piesbergen, dramaturgical consultant/text Marie Gignac, design Jean Hazel, lighting Etienne Boucher, sound Jean-Sébastien Côté, costume Yasmina Giguère; Barbican Theatre, London, Sept 6-14

Marie-Anne Mancio has a doctorate in live art and writes fiction. She participated in the RealTime review-writing workshop at Arnolfini’s In Between Time Festival in Bristol, 2006.

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 3

© Marie-Anne Mancio; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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