The Blue Dragon, Dublin

The Blue Dragon, Dublin

The Blue Dragon

by Robert Lepage and Marie Michaud
Ex Machina
Dublin: O’Reilly Theatre, Belvedere 7 – 11 October, 2009
Presented as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
On Tour: Le Havre 5 – 7 November; Toulouse 13-14 November; Madrid  
20-23 November; Paris 4-15 December, Vancouver 2-29 February 2010
http://www.dublintheatrefestival.com
http://lacaserne.net/index2.php/exmachina/

bluedragon

Québecois writer/director Robert Lepage has apparently been  
vociferous in his insistence that The Blue Dragon be considered as a  
wholly coherent and independent theatrical work, and not as a sequel  
to his 1985 opus The Dragons’ Trilogy. Though what I have read about  
the latter certainly would seem to suggest that the use of the same  
central character and the structuring convention of the last of the  
four coloured Chinese dragons representing the seasons of the year,  
three of which were used in the previous play, would certainly  
constitute a sequel, happily I am not in a position to say anything  
much about the 1985 piece because I have not seen it. As such I am  
content to approach The Blue Dragon as I see it here and now.

This is a technically spellbinding bit of theatrical production,  
deploying a complex set of mechanical and electronic tools to render  
the stage space into a variety of locations from a narrow Shanghai  
apartment to a train station to a hi-tech bar to an art gallery to  
the cityscape itself to the journey of a boat on the Yang-Tse river  
to a snowy or starry sky to the calligraphic canvas of frustrated  
artist Pierre Lamontaigne (Henri Chassé), a voluntary refugee from  
his native Canada working as an art dealer in contemporary China. The  
narrative is set in motion by the arrival of Claire Foret (Marie  
Michaud), an old friend and ex-wife. She has come to China to adopt a  
child in the hope of bringing meaning and focus to her fading life.  
Pierre is romantically involved with young artist Xiao Ling (Tai Wei  
Foo), who seems to also be pursuing her own sense of self-
determination in the burgeoning artistic climate of the new China. In  
truth, the narrative isn’t particularly enthralling: predictable, low-
key to the point of self-erasure, feeling very much like the stuff of  
a quiet chamber piece that no one would have any real interest in if  
it were not presented against such a grand backdrop.

The backdrop, it seems, is everything. This is true not just in  
technical terms, where the show is jaw-dropping, or in aesthetic  
terms, where the blend of technologies facilitates a degree of  
multimedia intertextuality including demonstrations of calligraphy,  
Chinese television advertisements, and also provides a showcase for  
some lovely dance performances by Tai Wei Foo, but in terms of the  
issues the play is consciously raising about China itself as a  
signifier of our times.

The Blue Dragon of Chinese mythology, we are told, is the avatar of  
winter: invisible and embodied in thunder, lurking beneath the  
surface of the earth. There is some sense of threat there, also of  
power, and maybe of potential yet unrealised, but poised to emerge.  
The production is cast in an array of blue lights and filters, and  
occasionally blasts thunder and lightning almost comically underline  
significant moments. Certainly there is a sense of an ominous  
ordering presence underneath the foibles of these particular humans.  
Each character seeks something deeper and more meaningful in their  
lives (don’t we all?) and each is doing so in and through China. Xiao  
Ling is the native, Pierre the émigré, Claire the visitor, and their  
degree of ‘possession’ of China, and of things each of the others  
desire (passion, talent, a child) means that as each encounters the  
other, they are encountering dimensions of the experience of China –  
a China at once both itself and yet significantly connected with the  
West. The play works hard not to exoticise or Orientalise, but  
inevitably in making China into a signifying presence, it  
demonstrates interest only in those elements of politics, society,  
and culture that inform its sub-text. I have no problem with this,  
but the accusations of Orientalism that apparently dogged The  
Dragons’ Trilogy would seem to be as easily leveled here if one were  
so inclined. The entire show is about a type of dialogue with the  
West, and the ending, in fact, connotes degrees of figurative  
movement towards it.

There is no doubt that The Blue Dragon is impressive and engrossing  
as a work of visual spectacle. As drama, it is avowedly small by  
comparison with its lavish execution, but for all that it tells its  
simple story clearly and well (though a triple-dip ending with three  
‘suggested outcomes’ feels less profound than it perhaps might be  
hoping). The performances are low key and naturalistic, though the  
jarring accented English by French-Canadian actors and characters is  
more distracting than you’d think. It also prompts speculation as to  
why they didn’t just use French dialogue and surtitles, as they used  
for the Chinese dialogue sequences. All-in-all audiences will  
probably enjoy the audio-visual journey here more than they will find  
themselves moved or involved by the events that transpire, and that  
may be enough depending on your level of expectation for an evening’s  
theatre.

Harvey O’Brien