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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Dragons' Trilogy

I've never been to China. When I was a kid, this was Chinatown. Now it's a parking lot . . . . If you scratch the ground with your nails, you will find water and motor oil. If you dig deeper, you're bound to find bits of porcelain and jade and the foundations of the Chinese families who lived here. And if you dig deeper still, you'll reach China. They might take you for a cat, for you always seem to fall upon your legs. ---- Françoise
The Dragons' Trilogy
EmilyShelton and JeanAntoineCharestThe Dragons' Trilogy (Photo: Erick Labbé)
In 1986, The Dragons' Trilogy launched Robert Lepage's genius into the international consciousness. After twenty years of phenomenal success and recognition, this epic theatrical experience remains as moving and unique as ever. Lepage's trademarks of breathtakingly beautiful images and impressionistic narrative are reproduced to full effect. He explores generations of characters living through the shifting liminalities of race, identity and social change, to reveal the Orient beneath the surface and within the imagination. The first act, Green Dragon opens in 1910 near Quebec City's Chinatown. Two French Canadian teenagers (Françoise and Jeanne) play and laugh together, setting down a street map out of shoeboxes and peopling them with characters. In a characteristic blend of fantasy and onstage reality, they imagine an Englishman wanting to open a shoe shop who duly appears onstage. He then visits the local Chinese laundryman enquiring about shoes. The two men's entrepreneurial foray into a poker club has disastrous consequences for Jeanne's drunken, widowed father who is teetering on the edge of daily bankruptcy.

The second act, Red Dragon, follows the two girls, their domestic situations and their misfortunes against the backdrop of events with worldwide significance. A husband who is neither his wife's lover nor his daughter's biological father, a child with a disabling illness and a mother's breast cancer coincide with the broader tragedy of war.

In the final part, White Dragon, some of the fragmentation is reconciled and the action concludes in a cyclical fashion. The Englishman Crawford, now wheelchair-bound, metaphysically returns to his birthplace Hong Kong in death. The children of immigrants encounter each other across language and race barriers: Yukali (Emily Shelton), descended from an absconded American pilot and a geisha killed in Hiroshima meets Françoise's son, the conceptual artist Pierre (Hugues Frenette).

The Barbican's cavernously vast auditorium has been converted into two parallel smaller blocks of seating and thus neutralizes the theatre's usual impersonal immensity. The set is a gravel-filled space with a single lamppost at one end and a wooden booth at the other. The fine grey gravel is trudged across, dug in, and even converted into a zen garden. Images from news clips, of the skies or of details onstage are projected onto a screen at one end and adds texture to the action.

Lepage's famously dreamlike style is simple and understated. The production encompasses the broadest themes imaginable, but in such an unaffected way that it is utterly beguiling. Dances realize prophetic dream sequences or re-enact segments of the narrative in a creative and ingenious way.

At one point, two lovers in army uniform skate around the edge of the stage to the "Skaters' Waltz." As the music grows louder, they are joined by other soldiers and the patriotic, congratulatory send off quickly develops into a destructive march, trampling domestic effects and forcing helpless civilians out of their way.

The actors demonstrate a chameleon versatility with which they unrecognisably adopt different roles. The music (performed by Jean-Sébastien Côté) is hauntingly atmospheric and seamlessly integrated into the action. One particularly poignant song, "Youkali" by Kurt Weill, is full of yearning and lyrical ache for a harmonious world.

This experience will expand your theatrical outlook, making other productions look staid, conventional and mundane. The unique chance to see The Dragons' Trilogy is both a perfect introduction to Lepage's brilliance and an exceptional opportunity for fans to revisit a formative play. The stories are at once human and cosmic, and the far-reaching themes are produced imaginatively and unpretentiously.

This indescribably mesmeric production is a flawless combination of aesthetic majesty and emotional integrity. It will assail your senses, enthral and enchant you.

Written by Marie Brassard, Jean Casault, Lorraine Côté, Marie Gignac, Robert Lepage, Marie Michaud
Directed by Robert LePage

With: Sylvie, Cantin, Jean Antoine Charest, Simone Chartrand, Hugues Frenette, Tony Guifoyle, Eric LeBlanc, Veronika Makdissi-Warren, Emily Shelton
Dramaturg: Marie Gignac
Original Set Design: Jean-François Couture, Gilles Dubé
Costume Design: Marie Chantale Vaillancourt
Composer: Robert Caux
Music arranged and composed by Jean-Sébastian Côté
Lighting: Sonoyo Nishikawa
Sound: Claud Cyr
Projection Design: Jacques Collin
Presented by BITE 05, Barbican in association with Cultural Industry as a part of Young Genius
Running time: Five hours twenty five minutes with three intervals
Box Office: 0845 120 7554
Booking to 25 September 2005
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 16th September 2005 performance at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street London EC1 (Tube: Barbican)
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©Copyright 2005, Elyse Sommer.
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