Sequels are tricky things. Twenty-five years ago, Robert Lepage was the driving force behind the epic five-hour-plus Dragon's Trilogy. Lepage has brought his spin-off The Blue Dragon to the Barbican in which he plays the Trilogy's central character, Pierre LaMontagne.
Lepage has become very successful since his Trilogy - anyone who has been to the latest Cirque Du Soleil spectacular will have seen his immensely creative handiwork there. Totem's chief criticism has been its lack of personality, something that Lepage has an opportunity to put right in his latest piece which focusses on three characters. LaMontagne has rejected his Canadian homeland for Shanghai and he is now under threat of being rejected in turn by the local authority, who want to demolish his gallery, and his young artist girlfriend Xiao Ling who has no intention of settling down. Into their lives crashes Pierre's ex-wife Claire on her way to collect her pre-ordered baby. Pierre bounces between the two women as they bond over pandas and pregnancy and turn his world upside down.
In many ways, this is The Robert Lepage Show complete with opening and closing credits. As well being the co-writer and director, he is the only one to break the fourth wall, he gets to show off his language skills in French, English and Mandarin and the play is a riot of cinematic imagination and visual lyricism brought to life by Michel Gauthier's jaw-dropping set design. Lepage treats the stage as his canvas, sometimes literally, with many scene changes and emotive weather effects. We doubt that there will be a better looking play this year (hint, hint, Oliviers judges).
Stopping the play becoming a single-handed tribute to Onan are the heartfelt performances by his co-stars Marie Michaud (Claire) and Tai Wei Foo (Xiao Ling). We also commend the positioning of surtitles just above the characters' heads as opposed to off to the side meaning that we can read and watch the actors simultaneously unlike in other productions we saw last year. It's a pity then that the rest of the play is so average: the plot is unoriginal, Lepage's prologue is prolix, the pacing is positively lethargic in places and Lepage himself is no great actor. The three-way ending is a clever touch but doesn't completely make amends for the soperific script that it follows. Like the stereotypical supermodel or footballer, this play is great to look at but also decidedly slow.
The Blue Dragon will be at the Barbican until 26 February. Full details here including a trailer.
For an idea of what the set design involves, see below (there is no audio).