Robert Lepage’s 887, an autobiographical exploration of memory, aging, and Québec’s Quiet Revolution, is currently running at the National Arts Centre for the first time in English and if you haven’t already seen it, you should.
887 excels both as a beautiful play to look at, thanks to Lepage’s legendary stagecraft (and backstage crew of 9 dedicated stagehands), and on the more social side 887 delivers a nuanced look at the factors that led up to the Quiet Revolution, the FLQ Crisis, and the rise of the separatist movement that came close to ending a united Canada in 1980 and even closer in 1995.
Through the figure of the working-class father that Lepage adored even though in reality they spent little time together, Lepage presents a side to Québec’s cultural and political reawakening in the late 1960s that English-speaking Canadians often don’t get to hear: not only how bad the cultural oppression by the Anglophone elite really was up to that point, but also how ordinary people in Québec were able to condemn the FLQ’s actions while also sharing their anger.
The main impetus for 887 comes from a real event in Lepage’s life when in 2010 he was asked to read Michèle Lalonde’s Speak White, a foundational text in Québécois poetry, at an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of a poetry reading at which Speak White was recited for the very first time. Despite the huge impact the poem had within Québec (in the poem, the Francophone narrator sarcastically presents herself to the Anglophone elite as a savage willing to have their culture bestowed upon her, before launching into a diatribe on the linguistically-based class system in place at the time), Lepage is completely unable to memorize even a single stanza.
He uses the memorization technique of the ‘memory palace’ (a concept you’re undoubtedly familiar with if you’ve seen Sherlock), choosing his childhood home, an apartment block at 887 Murray Avenue in Québec City, as his ‘palace’. But as Lepage takes himself back in time to explore the world of his childhood, he brings himself back into his own firsthand experiences of the cultural revolution that was picking up speed. In between the flashbacks, Lepage finds himself confronting his own sense of mortality when he learns that Radio-Canada (the French CBC) has a “cold cut” for him, a standard practice whereby media outlets keep a collection of regularly-updated obituaries for high-profile figures who have not yet died (the idea being that when such a figure does die, the media outlet will not have to scramble to put an obituary together).
But what is the show? The story is non-fiction and told in a very stream-of-consciousness manner, and since Lepage himself is the only live performer (a few other figures appear on screens throughout) I would hesitate to call it a play. Lepage comes out to deliver the usual “turn off your phones” pre-show message, ruminates for a moment on how mobile phones have changed our relationship with memory, and before you know it the lights are down and he’s showing you an interactive model of his childhood home. My advice is to sit back and let it happen, because honestly there’s not much to criticize in this show.
The centrepiece of 887 is a rolling room on wheels within the scale model of the apartment block. Thanks to the team of stagehands, the apartment block turns around to reveal a new side every few minutes and frequently opens up to reveal a new interior: the kitchen in Lepage’s current apartment where the “cold cut” scenes happen (these scenes are the only time 887 comes close to being a traditional drama), the childhood bedroom he shared with his sisters, a run-down diner where he imagines his taxi-driver father spends his late-night breaks, and so on.
Intercut with the ingenious set transitions and mesmerizing miniature models are film and music selections that both reinforce and deconstruct Lepage’s nostalgia for his childhood. Particularly telling is the notion of high tea being served at the Château Frontenac (one of his neighbours worked there), transitioning into a black-and-white clip from the National Film Board film Hôtel-Château showing what it actually looked like at the time.
The story the clip tells is discomfiting: upper-class persons casually sit at their tables waving over the one waitress in the tea room, while a pianist and violinist in 18th-century garb serenade the patrons (even the waitress seems to be wearing a period wig). The camera keeps cutting back to a pair of stereotypically lower-class Québécois ladies who gawk at the splendour around them, smoke incessantly, and are even gauche enough to applaud when the musicians finish a piece (the horror!). If you’ve ever had tea at the Château Laurier here in Ottawa then you’ll know that a lot of the pretension at those hotels has been dropped since then, but this look back at how extreme it used to be is a helpful reminder of the historical trajectory we’re on as a country, particularly in regard to the attitude of British cultural supremacy that continues to pervade Canada’s artistic scene (not just the assumption that white and Anglophone is the default, but also a continued focus on playwrights like Shakespeare and Shaw).
887 is not a new show exactly; it played at the NAC last year on the exact same stage but in Lepage’s first language of French. I can only speculate on the significance of this show to a Francophone audience. The significance of this show to an Anglophone audience to me however is obvious: growing up in the 1990s I remember a certain amount of eye-rolling from my Anglophone parents whenever the subject of Québec came up. Not realizing how the Québécois had been relegated to second-class citizens in their own home for such a long time, the rest of the country simply couldn’t understand why Québec was making the far-reaching demands of the federal government that it did in the 1980s and ‘90s.
My parents were also from Western Canada, where there was (and still is) resentment towards the Official Languages Act and therefore any news of cultural protection laws in Québec was met with derision every time. That most Canadians seem apathetic at best regarding their own country’s history seals the unfortunate situation. 887 is a potential tool in helping Anglophone Canadians understand the politicizing of Anglophone-Francophone tensions since the 1960s. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that seeing this show will get you “woke”, but if you want to learn more about the reality of how various ethnic/cultural groups interacted with each other in this country, 887 is a good place to start. With the current climate of Truth and Reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples, we can’t afford to congratulate ourselves on moving forward without addressing all the other inequalities in our country to which we’ve turned a blind eye. Lepage’s superb stagecraft is just the icing on the cake.
an Ex Machina production
Written, Directed, Designed, and Performed by Robert Lepage
English Translation by Louisa Blair
Creative Direction and Design by Steve Blanchet
Dramaturgy by Peder Bjurman
Assistant Director: Adèle Saint-Armand
Sound Design and Composition by Jean-Sébastien Côté
Lighting Design by Laurent Routhier
Image Design by Félix Fradet-Faguy
Associate Set Designer: Sylvain Décarie
Associate Property Designer: Ariane Sauvé
Associate Costume Designer: Jeanne Lapierre
Production Manager: Marie-Pierre Gagné
Production Assistant: Véronique St-Jacques
Technical Director: Paul Bourque
Tour Manager: Émile Beauchemin
Touring Technical Director: Olivier Bourque
Stage Manager: Nadia Bélanger
Sound Manager: Olivier Marcil
Lighting Manager: Benoît Brunet-Poirier
Video Manager: Dominique Hawry
Costume and Properties Manager: Isabel Poulin
Head Stagehand: Chloé Blanchet
Multimedia Integration: Nicolas Dostie
Technical Consultants: Catherine Guay, Tobie Horswill
Acting Consultant: Reda Guernik
Director’s Agent: Lynda Beaulieu