Arts Festival Review: The Dragons' Trilogy
The Dragons' TrilogyReviewed by Lyndon Hood
The Dragons' Trilogy
Ex Machina (dir. Robert Lepage)
11 - 13, 16 - 18 March
The Events Centre
The production is presented in traverse staging - two blocks of audience seating face each other across a rectangle of gravel - a parking lot complete with a warden's hut and a streetlight. Skillful lighting and a few everyday objects allow the space to stand for many locations, real and imagined. As the play proceeds it becomes more and more full of humanity and magic.
The Dragons' Trilogy is, in its plots, as much an intimate generational family saga as anything else - following the lives of Françoise and Jeanne (girls in the 1930s), their children and the people who shape their lives through half a century. It invokes the wider sweep of history by the impact grand events have, through experience, memory or imagination, on these people.
The magic perhaps comes from the powerful evocation of the human imagination, both of the characters, and the audience (a prologue invites us to join in a vision of the parking warden as an unsleeping dragon that guards the gates to immortality) and on the part of the play's creators and performers. The piece contains both the most powerful physical images I personally have seen in the festival and also the most compelling naturalistic sequences.
Each section seems to be structured around images as much as story - abstracted sequences reflect moments back or forwards through the act, pulling parts of the action into a central metaphor or simply putting them beside each other. What is happening serves as a key for interpreting what is to come, and vice versa.
The most remarkable of these image sequences comes in the middle of the 1940s. Sets of shoes - men's, women's and children's, are invested with the histories and relationships of much of the play up to that point. War sees them trodden into the gravel. The alchemical transformation (using the action of the play, movement, lighting and music) that invests so much meaning and emotion into such mundane objects and peculiar actions is as impressive as the effect of the image itself.
These images intwine themselves around naturalistic scenes, ranging from pivotal life events to mundane slices of life. The quality of the acting is uniformly superb, and as we are presented with more and more of the story even the most ordinary interactions of characters we barely know become infused with meaning and history.
Thematically, The Dragons' Trilogy sits at the intersection between cultures, looking out from French Canada at Toronto and Vancouver, at England, at Hong Kong, China and Japan. It is performed in the languages of all these places (with projected surtitles). The Asian imagery that inspires the title and infuses the play (and the set, when the gravel of the stage is raked into zen-garden lines) reflects Canadian images of Asia and of Canada's chinatowns - more to do with Orientalism than with the Orient.
The play reaches out to the modern flashpoints of East/West relations: Hiroshima, the Chinese Revolution. Sometimes we might even feel tempted to question the production's Orientalism - the pregnant white girl is won as a bride by a Chinese man in a poker game; a number real and imagined Chinese character are silent and faceless.
But these questions - and those of foreignness generally - that run through the production somehow seem secondary to the personal and emotional stories and moments. In the last part, two characters discuss art and ideas in a way that might be taken to suggest (or to dispute) some kind of East/West division, but what really fascinates us is them and their tentative steps towards romance.
The Dragons' Trilogy is a triumph for all concerned, especially for Robert Lepage both as an image-maker and the centre of a superb artistic and technical collaboration.
It runs for five and a half hours - about and hour twenty of which is accounted for by the three intervals. The events centre have thoughtfully put padding on all of their seats. It is longer than the usual play, but then, time passes at different rate when you watch it. If it sounds like too long, ask yourself why, and have a think about what you'd be doing otherwise. If you go to see The Dragons' Trilogy, your time will not be wasted.
NZ Arts Festival: The Dragons'
Scoop Audio Interview: The Dragon's Trilogy actor Tony Guilfoyle
Scoop Audio and Images: The Dragons' Trilogy director Robert Lepage
Scoop Full Coverage: Festival 06