Robert Lepage’s one-man show 887 is an exploration of memory. Adrift on a black stage with a stunning set – a ‘memory palace’ – Lepage uses his recollections of his own childhood to explore wider ideas of cultural memory, the things we remember after people die, and the ways in which memory make up our existence.
The play slips between the past and the present with a gorgeous fluidity that, with the use of an origami-like set which folds and unfolds into different rooms and shapes, allows Lepage to create the illusion that we are all inside a mind searching for connections between past and present. The genius of this set by Ex Machina allows Lepage to loom almost God-like over a model of his childhood home, the street number of which gives the show its name). As the set twists and turns, he settles into a regular-sized apartment, where reality settles back down into a one-way conversation with a friend about the difficulty of remembering a poem he has been asked to recite. This interplay between traditional storytelling and more ‘play-like’ scenes make for interesting and welcome changes in pace.
Lepage is a warm and generous performer who demands respect and attention. But although his descriptions of his childhood in Quebec are interesting stories that avoid sentimentality, there is a niggling question about why (apart from celebrity) we should really care so much about this man in front of us. The opening of the show sees Lepage speak conversationally about please turning off our mobile phones and also let’s talk about memory, but there is a casualness to this set up which perhaps lacks the theatricality that would have made the audience deeply invest in what he was telling us.
The intimacy of 887 – both in content and in execution – hints at its potential to be a truly breathtaking piece of theatre, but the mismatch between this intimacy and the cavernous theatre in which the show was placed meant there was a gap between form and content. The set is awash with intricacies that help make up the stories – projections and 3D models that embody the characters Lepage mentions in his stories. But sitting in the second-back row of the dress circle, most of this detail is lost. It is a shame, because you can feel the generosity of Lepage’s stories seeping from the stage, yet you simply can’t see enough of the detail to be as engaged as the set design intended.
Lepage is a great storyteller and 887 is a grand and compelling night in the theatre, inviting audiences to consider their own relationship with personal and cultural memory through a visually stunning and memorable theatrical event.