Edinburgh Festival: Robert Lepage on Canada’s political history

Robert Lepage draws on nostalgia to explore the political history of Quebec and Canada. Picture: Getty
Robert Lepage draws on nostalgia to explore the political history of Quebec and Canada. Picture: Getty
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Beginning in the apartment where he grew up, theatre director, actor and writer Robert Lepage uses his own nostalgia to explore the political history of Quebec and Canada, as he tells Francis McLachlan

If you’re ever in French-speaking Canada, check out the car registration plates. They all bear the slogan, “Québec: Je me souviens.” It means, “Quebec: I remember.” That’s ironic because most residents have forgotten what the phrase means. They don’t remember at all.

As theatre director Robert Lepage will tell you, it is taken from a late 19th-century motto that says, “I remember that, born under the lily, I grow under the rose.” In other words, “As a Canadian, I remember being born under the French, but I am growing under the English.”

“It was a reconciliatory way of saying we have both natures,” says Lepage, who himself was brought up in a bilingual household in Quebec City. “

But nobody knows. If you ask people on the street, ‘What is it you remember?’ they’ll say, ‘Oh, the stuff that happened to us, it’s to remind us that we’ve survived.’ That’s not what it’s from.”

Such collective amnesia annoys him: “You can never remember correctly, but you have to be interested in where you come from and how things started.”

Right now, it’s a theme that preoccupies him. His one-man show, 887, which has its European premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival, is all about “how things started”.

They started for him in the cramped apartment from which the show takes its name. Situated in a working-class neighbourhood in the upper part of the city, 887 Avenue Murray was where the theatremaker spent his formative years. He lived at close quarters with his mother, a housewife, and father, a cab driver; his older brother and sister, who were adopted and spoke English; his younger sister, who spoke French like him; and a grandmother who had Alzheimer’s.

The more he thought about the time he spent there in the 1960s, the more he realised there were broader stories to be told. On the one hand, there were his personal memories of building forests of foraged Christmas trees in the deep snow, of skipping Sunday Mass with his sister at the church at the top of the road and of making his first stage appearance at the secondary school nearby. On the other hand, the neighbourhood was full of resonances with significant moments in the history of Quebec.

“The thing I was interested in was the connection between personal nostalgia and political history,” says the director, whose productions seen in Scotland over the last 25 years include Tectonic Plates, The Dragons’ Trilogy, The Seven Streams of the River Ota, Bluebeard’s Castle, Elsinore and The Geometry of Miracles.

He explains that he grew up between two major battlefields. In one direction was the Plains of Abraham, where in 1759, General James Wolfe defeated the Marquis de Montcalm and the British took control of Quebec. In the other direction is Parc des Braves where, six months later, a feisty brigade of French soldiers, who had taken refuge in Montreal, made one last attempt to reclaim Quebec City. Their defeat secured Britain’s position and determined the fate of Canada.

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“Those two battlefields gave the whole country, to a degree, to Britain,” he says. “All of the names of the streets bear the names of English generals, so it’s a very historical place. It’s a nice place to do a show about local domestic things but at the same time you can trigger the memory of these generals.”

He points out that his own street, Avenue Murray, takes its name from the East Lothian-born general James Murray, who had served under Wolfe in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and subsequently became the first civil governor of the Province of Quebec.

But it is to a more recent period of history that Lepage is returning in 887. It so happens that the years he lived in this apartment coincided with the most incendiary period for Quebec’s separatist movement. From 1963, the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) initiated a campaign of violence against sites symbolising British colonialism. Over the next seven years it was involved in more 200 bombings, culminating in the October Crisis of 1970 when it took the British trade commissioner hostage and the government invoked the war measures act.

“I was playing in the yard with firecrackers at the same time as the FLQ was setting off bombs,” says Lepage. “I’m interested in history but there are two different histories going on at the same time – history with a capital H and history with a lower-case h. One reflects the other.”

It’s typical of the interconnectedness of Lepage’s thinking that he can create theatre out of the link between his private childhood memories and the collective memory of a volatile period in Quebecois history. What fascinates him in both cases is the fallibility of the human mind and the way the past can return to surprise us. The example of his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease is an extreme case, but as the “Québec: Je me souviens” registration plates demonstrate, we are all prone to forgetfulness.

Perhaps for an individual misremembering their formative years, this is not so important. “It happened often that my sister would tell this family anecdote, and I would go, ‘You don’t remember this because you weren’t born.’ She would say, ‘Of course I was born, I was there.’ And I’d say, ‘No, you were told it as a kid and you made it your memory.’”

We’re all prone to mistakes of this kind. But a nation telling itself a distorted story of its own past can produce a cultural amnesia that Lepage finds troubling. “Most of the FLQ bombings were in Montreal, but in Quebec City they blew up the statue of Queen Victoria in a place called Parc Victoria which is a very important baseball stadium,” he says. “It blew up in 1963. Nobody knows this. Nobody remembers that there was ever a statue of Queen Victoria in Quebec City. You have to show pictures of it and say, ‘Look , there was.’ Where’s your memory?”

As an inveterate yarn-spinner, however, Lepage has never been a man to let the facts get in the way of a good story. He describes his show as “autofiction”, a technique borrowed from literature in which the author draws on material from their own life without feeling the obligation to tell it exactly like it was.

For the purposes of 887, for example, he’s rounded up the six years he spent in Avenue Murray to a neat decade. It satisfies his instincts as a storyteller if the play encompasses the whole of the 1960s.

On top of that, there’s always the chance his memory has been playing tricks on him. “That’s the beauty of theatre and autofiction – you’re recounting something in a form that allows you to be wrong,” he says. “Who cares whether it happened or not? The important thing is the impression of it.”

In the intimate and subjective world of performance, this is more true than ever. “The thing about theatre that I find fantastic is you see one night of a show and you’ll remember it all your life and, because it’s not recorded, it’s only the people who were there that night who remember it. And they remember it with their own filter. You have to accept that. Who knows when people talk about that famous evening when Bertolt Brecht did The Threepenny Opera for the first time – what video or film do we have to prove these events? But who cares whether it happened or not, the important thing is the fiction.”

• 887 is at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, until 23 August. Today, 7:30pm.