Review: The Blue Dragon
The Blue Dragon
Directed by Robert Lepage
Starring Henri Chassé, Tai Wei Foo and Marie Michaud
Playing at: Playhouse at the Arts Centre, for the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Season now concluded
You wouldn’t expect subtlety from a man with such a formidable reputation for pushing boundaries. But The Blue Dragon, the stand-alone sequel to Robert Lepage’s 1985 production of The Dragon’s Trilogy, offers plainly truthful, narrative-driven, even cinematic theatre. There is no abstraction here. But intricate staging and visual technology impregnate The Blue Dragon’s simple storyline with a mild magic.
Middle-aged Canadian expat Pierre (Henri Chassé) is running an art gallery in Shanghai. He ungrounded, in an emotional void somewhere between China and Canada. His relationship with Xiao Ling (Tai Wei Foo), a young Chinese artist and tattooist, is sustained by convenience: her youth and spirit are not enough to budge Pierre’s complacency. When Pierre’s ex-wife Claire (Marie Michaud) arrives in China to adopt a baby, the three find themselves shuffling values in challenging circumstances, struggling to attain the things they believe they want.
Dragon’s characters are believable, plucked from the everyday. All are floundering, and in a combination of English, French and Chinese, Lepage and his co-writer Michaud observe these people’s challenges and flaws in a very real and respectful way. Discerning and occasionally laugh-out-loud humour brings lightness to the piece.
The French and Chinese dialogue is accompanied by English subtitles that are projected on a beam in the middle of Michel Gauthier’s multi-dimensional set. Comprising two levels of moveable screens and floors, it is a nifty piece of architecture that morphs into a plane, subway station, apartment, bar, and gallery space where bicycles, ships and planes find calm passage across the stage.
David Leclerc’s intricate projections add a heightened reality to Gauthier’s set. Via Leclerc’s technological mastery, performers appear to construct imagery live: Pierre’s calligraphy brushstrokes appear gradually on large screens with each movement of his hand.
The motif of ink is ever-present as the characters are marked by experience. Leclerc’s projection design magnifies poignant moments exquisitely: Pierre’s body is splayed against a wall as it is tattooed by Xiao Ling’s projected hand, the strokes carefully forming a pattern on his skin; an apartment snows with television static as Pierre falls asleep confused and unclear; projected rain falls outside on a lamenting couple.
The visual effects give Dragon an uncanny filmic quality: from the subtitling and opening credits to the flawless scene transitions and projected montages. However, some of the visual elements feel incongruous in the otherwise languid play. A Chinese advertisement for a well-known Western fast food chain flashes boldly on a massive screen. Shown without subtitles, it cleverly alludes to China’s hesitant steps in connecting with the rest of the world. These impressive and clever visuals come swiftly and change Dragon’s quaint pace, but disappointingly these blasts rarely reappear.
Tai Wei Foo’s choreography, however, is continual. Foo’s movement, a combination of traditional Chinese dance and contemporary ballet, makes for a poignant political trope. The combination of Foo’s body precision and Leclerc’s projections proves a magical fusion: each movement in Foo’s sleeve dance ignites the screen behind her with bursts of electronic confetti.
The Blue Dragon is a mainstream crowd-pleaser: cinema meets theatre meets dance, and the result is captivating but not challenging. Being left unruffled, seasoned festivalgoers might want something more. An undecided ending – an audience-friendly choose-your-own-adventure scenario – makes a fair statement about freedom of choice and outcomes but is ultimately a little placid, providing a ‘pleasant’ rather than charged end point.
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