In Robert Lepage’s The Blue Dragon, the Quebec artist at the centre of The Dragons’ Trilogy (1985) is back on stage. While the latter production ended with Pierre Lamontagne (Henri Chassé) going off to study in China, this installment takes places 20 years later, and both Pierre and China have radically changed. The artist is now a Shanghai gallery owner who has given up his own painting to support the work of others, and the country is struggling under rapid modernization. When his ex-wife Claire (Marie Michaud) arrives attempting to adopt a baby, and Xiao Ling (Tai Wei Foo) - the young artist he mentors and sleeps with - gets pregnant, the difficulties of cultural exchange are thrown into relief.
There are certain things we come to expect from a Lepage production: sophisticated technology, powerful visuals, a global perspective attuned to local sensibilities. When this performance opens, Michel Gauthier’s intricately engineered split set suggests that we are in familiar territory. Pierre steps forward to talk us through the meaning of Chinese signatures, while ostensibly painting projected images onto a large screen, in a manner that signals that the performance is as much about the tension between communication and interpretation, tradition and modernity as it is about China and Quebec.
But if the creative use of technology has kept Lepage’s work fresh, this production does little to suggest that Ex Machina are leading the way in this regard. Gauthier’s design is often a beautiful and versatile piece of architecture, although it rarely speaks of its own accord, and it certainly feels secondary to the play text. While the transition from airplane, to apartment, to departure suite is a bit cool, if sometimes shaky, it feels superfluous to a much more familiar kind of drama that could take place without complicated staging.
On a number of occasions, we are aware that beautiful tableaux are under construction, but they never quite settle convincingly. This has something to do with the weighty machinery, but it has more to do with the heavily coded nature of the images that could be taken straight from a tourist brochure without being held up to critique: people cycling against a Shanghai skyline, an unlikely snowstorm, flash lightning. These scenes are inter-cut with KFC advertisements and clips of mass cultural entertainment. In her photographic work, Xiao Ling seeks to forge an individual identity set against this homogenising media canvas, although she is inevitably subsumed into the system.
While the text is invested in illuminating some of the tensions between Quebec and China, as well as the allure and difficulty of cross-cultural connections, it feels rather lightly written. The plot turns on the kind of dramatic scenarios normally associated with television rather than cutting edge dramaturgy. Writers Lepage and Michaud build their story around an international flight, a pair of frustrated lovers, an illicit affair, a pregnancy test, adoption, abortion, and a lot of drinking - to the point that it feels like an Eastenders Christmas special. If this is meant to illuminate the complexities of a frequently misunderstood culture, you could say it does the opposite, by turning it into a soap opera.
Even though the country is perceived from ‘within’ by its Western visitors, characters recite the familiar litany of ‘problems’ which are of greatest interest to Western observers. There is a reference to sweatshops, the climate, the rapid expansion of the city which eventually forces Pierre to leave, and the birth limit. The Quebec characters almost fetishise this culture, as exemplified in Pierre’s obsession with tattoos, and Claire’s search for a baby. While these are indeed resonant concerns of intercultural exchange, they are so underscored that it feels more like a lecture rather than theatre.
Lepage gives us three possible endings: one in which Xiao Ling, Claire and the baby leave for Quebec; one in which Claire, Pierre and the baby leave for Quebec, and one in which Claire and Xiao Ling leave for Quebec, leaving Pierre and the baby in China. While this is both amusing and somewhat interesting, the form is also indebted to a particular soap opera or romantic comedy convention that makes you question whether or not you should be taking any of this seriously at all.
Just when we are wondering whether Lepage, a more insidious Western imaginary, or China itself has turned the country into a filmscape, the Ex Machina credits roll writ large, and you can’t help but be reminded that the company itself is big business, and suspect that with this production at least, the only ingredient really missing is popcorn.