To travel is to... Discover yourself
"I am not a genius like Hans Christian Andersen, but I identify with him as a person - his loneliness, the shadow sides of his life," says Canadian theatre director Robert Lepage. On 2 April he receives the 2004 Odense City Hans Christian Andersen Award. Next year he is to visit Copenhagen with his new solo performance based on Andersen's fairytale The Dryad.
By Per Theil - H.C. Andersen 2005 - 02 April 2004
"I have always wondered why so few theatres are interested in Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales," says Robert Lepage and continues:
"Andersen is such a dramatic and theatrical artist - in the best sense of the word. Not only his plays but especially his fairytales, which like those by Shakespeare feature everything that calls on the mechanism of theatre - disguise, transformation, fantasy, witches, ghosts and talking animals."
Many of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales have been adapted to the screen but very seldom to the stage. This is what the 46-year-old Canadian film and theatre director seeks to address when next year in September he features in Copenhagen with a new solo performance dealing with his own as well as Hans Christian Andersen' life based on Andersen's fairytale The Dryad.
The fairytale is not widely known, and Robert Lepage hesitates to pronounce the title in Danish. Likewise, the interviewer is uncertain of the English pronunciation. After a few laughs, Lepage explains that he finds Swedish easier, since he has staged several performances at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.
However, he insists on reading the fairytale in Danish quite simply to get a feeling of Andersen's idiom and language. The tone in The Dryad is more mature than the naive renditions often given. The language is often suggestive, some would even say wildly modern.
"Our time is the time of fairytales," Andersen writes in the beginning of the fairytale, which is inspired by the poet's visit to the 1867 World Fair in Paris. It chronicles the new world while suggesting a story of sexual emancipation.
Andersen visited the brothels several times, and the city of cities was then, as ever, the perfect place for a kinky adventure. Whether you have it off - or as Andersen simply content yourself with a little voyeurism and conversation with the Madams.
"The Aladdin's Palace of the present has been built," it was said. "Day by day, hour by hour, it unfolds more of its wonderful splendour." The endless halls shine in marble and many colours. "Master Bloodless" here moves his limbs of steel and iron in the great circular hall of machinery. Works of art in metal, in stone, in Gobelins tapestry, announce the vitality of mind that is stirring in every land. Halls of paintings, splendour of flowers, everything that mind and skill can create in the workshop of the artisan, has been placed here for show."
The time of progress! The age of the machine soars in potent poetry, and enticement, enchantment and corruption tempts people and dryads alike. Champagne and chartreuse is consumed in the streets of Paris, the women dance can-can and the luring catacombs are full with rats that dart between the legs. Pure decadence! Andersen's forest nymph lives in the countryside in a chestnut tree yet so yearns to see Paris. "Deliver me from my prison! Give me human life, human happiness, only a short span, only the one night, if it cannot be otherwise," she sighs. Her wish is granted, but everything has its price.
"Andersen's dryad, wants to see the world, and the fair is by all means a world exhibition. She is a sign of her time. In the 19th century people started to move to the city. The world was changing, and Europe was changing much as Canada changed 100 years later," says Robert Lepage and continues: "In 1967, Montreal hosted the World Expo, and that actually changed Canada significantly: Montreal for the first time became a part of the world, since the world came to Montreal. The French part of Canada at the time was somewhat backward, very Catholic and moralist, but the World Expo changed everything and created an awareness of technology and culture - in the entire modern media world. So while Andersen in Paris peers into the future, I will mirror the fairytale in my own and Canada's past."
And then there is the Dryad as a being - her yearning to break out of her wooden cell and discover herself (sexually). And here Robert Lepage has found a personal approach.
"But how do you actually play a dryad?" I ask. He laughs. We will return to the Canadian forest nymph.
The travel companion
Andersen and Lepage: On the face of things, they could not be further apart in time, place or in personality. Andersen is from the island of Funen, Lepage is from Québec. That is a major distance, if there ever was one. The neurotic and awkward Andersen with his oversized shoes belongs to a bygone Danish Golden Age while the quiet and almost Zen-like Lepage falls in line with Peter Brook and Robert Wilson as one of the great directors of the contemporary world scene.
Tea is served during the interview, and he has removed his shoes to speak intimately and quietly.
It is quite honestly a little difficult to grasp the connection, and while you ponder the question, you secretly measure up Lepage's socks to try and grasp whether his feet really can follow in Andersen's footsteps. Yet the apparent wide difference masks the similarities obvious at closer scrutiny. Lepage and Andersen - they do have something in common.
In actual fact, Hans Christian Andersen could have found no better-suited travel companion. They are both travellers in strange and magical experiences, which not only embrace the world but the entire universe. Both have an obsession for the theatre. Andersen managed to play the part as troll on the Danish national stage, but that was in the 1821 ballet Armida. Lepage, on the other hand, is both director and actor. But they are both wizards - inspired narrators.
They enchant the world and mesmerize the audience so we dare not believe our own eyes. This we saw in Robert Lepage's first visit to Denmark in 1991 with his breakthrough performance The Dragon's Trilogy, which was an epic journey about Chinese immigration to Canada, which has been ongoing since the late 19th century. The actors waded in three tons of sand on a parking lot in Québec that had replaced the Chinatown of yesteryear. As Lepage expressed it:
"If you scratch the surface, you find the everyday life of now, if you dig a little deeper, the past will emerge. And finally, if you keep digging you will reach China."
Well, that was a true fairytale!
As a young man, Robert Lepage wanted to study geography, and that shows. All his performances are journeys - geo-cultural explorations of time, language and place from East to West, where escape, meetings, immigration, yearning and memory take centre stage. Not least in Hiroshima - The Seven Streams of the River Ota, a performance that embraced Hiroshima, Holocaust and AIDS and was featured at the Aarhus Festival Week in 1995 and later in Copenhagen in 1996.
A captivating 20th-century story preoccupied by tragedy - a modern version of the opera Madame Butterfly, but nurtured with simplicity and ease; meditative in its wizardry, in its mastering of time, place and the art of theatre - from shadow images and puppet theatre, as with Andersen, to sit-com and melodrama. The principles of the director are expressed in one tiny word: Zen.
Since then, we have witnessed Robert Lepage's one-man show Elsinore - his high-tech version of Shakespeare's Hamlet, a postmodern waltz into the human soul. And most recently, in 2000 during the Aarhus Festival Week, he launched on a space odyssey in The Far Side of The Moon, which co-orbited his own dream of the Moon with his personal memory of his mother's womb. Lying on the floor and spinning, he finally levitated miraculously and melancholically to become an airborne creature. Weighed down by memory, yet emancipated by his yearning to be free of his body - much the opposite of Andersen's dryad, who yearns for a body and to feel like a human?
Fame and loneliness
Andersen and Lepage are, in fact, quite similar. They share a realm, and in a way they share the same destiny.
"I am very, very close to this text," Lepage declares.
His show about Andersen and his dryad will probably be staged as a one-man show, and the performance will be just as much about himself.
"I have read a couple of Andersen biographies, and the best have depicted other aspects of him than his genius - the duplicity of his soul and the shadow sides to his life and the loneliness of his fame. When you stage a one-man show there will always be an element of lonliness, and that, I believe, is a good reflection of who Andersen was. Loneliness gave Andersen a great freedom to travel, and his trips to Paris allowed him to expose himself as a human and sexual being. The visits to the brothels were, after all, a kind of freedom. Andersen lived a life of utmost respectability in bourgeois Copenhagen, and so the journey and his writing of The Dryad were erotic escapes - an attempt to live out things that he couldn't do in Copenhagen, or didn't dare to. He had his reputation to consider, and then there was the risk of disease," says Robert Lepage and continues:
"It's a loneliness that is only to some extent voiced in his writing, but much more persistently noted in his diary. Andersen, as is well known, would mark the days with a cross when he had masturbated. And masturbation is the loneliest thing you can do. In Andersen's case, it certainly meant he was alone. This is to me deeply moving. On the surface, you have the celebrated genius, but on the flipside there is loneliness. The way he could express this was not through writing but by using a code - a cross or SOS - in his diary. I would like to portray this loneliness, but without becoming voyeuristic or vulgar," Robert Lepage emphasises.
And Lepage himself?
"I am preoccupied with the sexual aspect. Even today, there is a considerable risk involved in coming out of the closet - or out of the tree - and giving over to sexuality. We live in an age of AIDS. And then there is the other side of things. Of course, I am not a genius like Andersen, but I can easily identify with him. In a way, he became a victim of his own success. He was paraded in the salons and at the manor farms; he was the gemstone in the crown of kings. In Canada, which is a young nation, and where culture is still in the making, you become a commodity if you have but the slightest success. Andersen avoided this somewhat by travelling abroad. Every train journey he took was a journey towards himself, an attempt to discover himself. As an artist, who performs widely across the world, I do much the same. I make a lot of trips. Well, in a way you could say I escape in order to find myself," Lepage says and laughs again.
But the dryad - we completely forgot the dryad. How do you identify with her? What is she to look like? I ask.
"In the old days you dressed up - you masked yourself in the role. Nowadays, Tom Cruise just plays Tom Cruise, whether he is a lover boy or a Samurai. But I think I'll wear something long - to be a real nymph - but hopefully without looking like a complete idiot. The dryad, after all, is planted in the middle of a square in Paris with some young chestnut trees. And then, since I have a dog, I thought of the fact that dogs like to pee on trees and smell the scent of other dogs - a form of communication I have never understood but which fascinates me. Dogs speak their own language. Here was an aggressive hound or a lovely bitch."
And Robert Lepage concludes:
"I think my performance will start with a dog sniffing the chestnut tree on the small square in Paris. There needs to be a relationship between the dog and that which once was inside the tree. Perhaps it can smell the spirit in the tree? The dog must be able to talk. A well-spoken dog! It is, after all, easier to talk of yourself through a dog - and no, it will certainly not be a real dog on stage. The dog will, true to the spirit of Andersen, be a very dramatic dog and will be made of the pure magic of theatrical illusion!"
Robert Lepage facts:
Robert Lepage (b. 1957 in Québec) is today one of the leading theatre directors in the world, but has also made opera and film. He is furthermore a designer, dramatist and actor, and since the early 1980s he has challenged the conventions of the theatre with the latest computer technology. In 1982, he became a member of Théâtre Repère and, among other productions, created Vinci, on the genius Leonardo da Vinci, and the breakthrough performance The Dragon's Trilogy, which visited Copenhagen in 1991. Furthermore, he has staged a number of Shakespeare plays, among them A Midsummer Nights Dream at the Royal National Theatre.
In 1994, he founded his own company, Ex Machina, in Québec with a converted fire station as rehearsal stage and workshop where he created Hiroshima - The Seven Streams of the River Ota, Elsinore and The Far Side of the Moon, which have all been performed in Denmark. He has staged Strindberg's A Dream Play for the Royal Swedish Dramatic Theatre.
In September 2005, Lepage will return to Denmark with his Hans Christian Andersen performance The Dryad, which is based on the fairytale by Andersen and the life of the poet as well as that of his own. On 2 April, Lepage will visit Odense to receive the 2004 Odense City Hans Christian Andersen Award 2004 of ?50,000. The award is presented to a person who has set out to actively to promote the wider awareness and appreciation of Hans Christian Andersen. Currently, Robert Lepage is staging Cirque du Soleil's new Las Vegas Show.
From "The Dryad":
From Hans Christian Andersen's The Dryad (1868): Thus the words sounded. And the light vanished away, but not the longing of the Dryad. She trembled in the wild fever of expectation. "Thou shalt go to the city of magic; thou shalt take root there, and enjoy the mighty rushing breezes, the air and the sunshine there. But the time of thy life shall then be shortened; the line of years that awaited thee here amid the free nature shall shrink to but a small tale. Poor Dryad!
It shall be thy destruction. Thy yearning and longing will increase, thy desire will grow more stormy, the tree itself will be as a prison to thee, thou wilt quit thy cell and give up thy nature to fly out and mingle among men. Then the years that would have belonged to thee will be contracted to half the span of the ephemeral fly, that lives but a day: one night, and thy life-taper shall be blown out- the leaves of the tree will wither and be blown away, to become green never again!"
Thus the words sounded. And the light vanished away, but not the longing of the Dryad. She trembled in the wild fever of expectation. "Thou shalt go to the city of magic; thou shalt take root there, and enjoy the mighty rushing breezes, the air and the sunshine there. But the time of thy life shall then be shortened; the line of years that awaited thee here amid the free nature shall shrink to but a small tale. Poor Dryad! It shall be thy destruction. Thy yearning and longing will increase, thy desire will grow more stormy, the tree itself will be as a prison to thee, thou wilt quit thy cell and give up thy nature to fly out and mingle among men. Then the years that would have belonged to thee will be contracted to half the span of the ephemeral fly, that lives but a day: one night, and thy life-taper shall be blown out- the leaves of the tree will wither and be blown away, to become green never again!"
Excerpt from Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale, which he wrote over the course of twenty months inspired by the World Fair in Paris in 1867.