It used to be that you didn’t go to see a new Robert Lepage show; for the most part, a Lepage show came to see you.
Though based in Quebec City, the internationally acclaimed director’s theatre company Ex Machina didn’t have its own dedicated performance space there, only a creation studio, and his world premieres could take place anywhere around the globe and were designed to tour.
Now, however, Le Diamant, a Lepage-run performing arts centre, has opened up in the historic heart of the Quebec capital. This fall, it is again the only theatre in a major Canadian city in which you can see The Seven Streams of the River Ota, his moving new version of the spectacular collective creation that first made Ex Machina’s name in the 1990s.
First revived in 2019 for a world tour interrupted by the pandemic, the seven-hour production (including two intermissions, two pauses and a break for a poke bowl) was supposed to play Montreal in August – until a fire broke out at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde and that run was cancelled.
As for when or whether this production already seen in Moscow (2019), London (2020) and Berlin (2022) will be seen in Toronto, nothing has been announced. I hope it is not the case that the fiery – but, in many ways, important and productive – debates over representation that broke out regarding Lepage’s shows Kanata and Slav a few years back have left him without a theatrical home there again.
Seven Streams is very much worth flying to Quebec to see, though the unilingual be forewarned that the multilingual show (English, French, Japanese, German) is not playing any performances in its current short run with English surtitles (as it did at the National Theatre in London), only French ones.
The first of seven acts is set in Hiroshima not long after the end of the Second World War. An American GI, Luke, is sent to photograph the effects of the atomic bomb on buildings and begins a relationship with a Japanese woman named Nozomi, only ever seen from the back, who invites him in to photograph the effect it had on her.
This initial scene nods at the opera Madama Butterfly – in terms of plot, and seemingly in terms of representation – but what follows is a series of extremely bingeable short, interconnected plays that branch out in unexpected directions.
Two half-brothers named Jeffrey – one American, one Japanese – meet for the first time in 1965 in a rundown New York apartment complex that is also frequented by a Czech performance artist and a Dutch opera singer, and these characters later are central to scenes that move to a cafe in Amsterdam, a subway station in Osaka and to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Those worlds and others appear to the audience as if by magic through the sliding doors of the first act’s house in a set designed by Carl Fillion and adapted by Ariane Sauvé.
Canadians get involved when Nozomi’s daughter Hanako (Donna Yamamoto), who was blinded by the bomb, becomes a translator and provides live interpretation for a Quebec production of a French farce presented at the international expo in 1970 in Osaka – and befriends the lead actor Sophie (a standout Myriam Leblanc).
This satirical section (which Lepage adapted into his 1998 film Nô) provides welcome comic relief; Audrée Southière, as the pretentious wife of a philandering Canadian diplomat, is particularly hilarious. But, like so many of the acts, there’s an artfully conjured coup de théâtre at the end that may lead to streams of tears down your cheeks.
Though Seven Streams flows to many of the darkest places of the second half of the 20th century – from nuclear bombs to genocide to AIDS – the show is ultimately hopeful because of the endurance of the characters.
Hiroshima becomes a place of regeneration, for a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, and, later, for a young Quebec dancer who (like Lepage) finds inspiration in Japanese performing arts such as butoh and kabuki.
A significant change with this latest version of the show, which toured the world from 1994 to 1998 and played in Tokyo for the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings, is the inclusion of more Japanese (and Japanese-Canadian) artists among the cast and creatives.
Taiko master Tetsuya Kudaka’s drumming is now an integral part of the dramatic rhythm of show – while the trajectory has been recentred around the character of Hanako. She really feels like the beating heart of the show as played by Yamamoto, former artistic director of the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre.
It was when a five-hour still-in-development version of Seven Streams played in Toronto in 1995 that a critic for Variety wrote it was taking its place alongside legendary creations such as Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby. It seems like audiences in Canada’s biggest city should have an opportunity to see the full, reinvigorated version of this classic.
Luminato Toronto Festival, which has hosted Lepage’s longer works since 2009 but no longer has the budget it once did, says it has no plans to present it in the foreseeable future.
Canadian Stage, which was the regular home for Lepage shorter shows under artistic director Matthew Jocelyn, did not respond to e-mailed questions about this particular show or the Quebec artist’s place in general in the company now. I hope that’s not a sign of residual squeamishness over past controversies.
Meanwhile, a number of exceptional Toronto shows, such as Why Not’s Prince Hamlet, and Guillaume Côté's Crypto, are headed this fall to Lepage’s Le Diamant.
The Seven Streams of the River Ota continues to Sept. 25 at Le Diamant. It has a single performance at the Centre Culturel de l’Université de Sherbrooke on Oct. 2.