It seems pointless to try to anticipate the subject of the next show by Robert Lepage and his Ex Machina company. Having enthralled audiences in recent years with their magical takes on Hamlet (Elsinore) and architecture and mathematics (Geometry of Miracles), they have quickly become a Sydney Festival hit with The Far Side of the Moon, inspired by the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States.
As ever with Lepage, it would take a brave person to say that the play is actually about what is, nominally, its subject. It would be more correct to say that the piece uses the exploration of space and the Cold War rivalry as a vehicle for Ex Machina’s own exploration of the possibilities of theatre and of the vanities and vulnerabilities of the human race.
Written, directed and performed by Lepage himself, the play interweaves the facts and images of the space race with the troubled relationship between two brothers (one a PhD student, the other a weatherman) following the harrowing death of their mother. Touchingly humorous and subtly evocative, it exemplifies the company’s talent for convincingly combining apparently disparate elements. The high stakes and excitement of the space programme become of a part with the fears, resentments and petty domestic issues of the Quebec City brothers.
Typically for a Lepage show, it is the stage wizardry of his ingenious sets and projected images which lifts the play beyond the reach of most theatre companies. Just as the weatherman’s broadcast spills seamlessly over into a conversation with his brother, so a washing machine door instantly alters into a hatch inside a space station. Repeated over and over, with breathtaking variety, this dramatic inventiveness renders the work a spectacle.
Spectacular though it is, the piece also carries that other Lepage trademark, simplicity. In one of the play’s most hilarious passages, the moustachioed weatherman exhibits the full absurdity of his narcissism as Lepage brilliantly creates the various exercise machines of a gym using nothing but an ironing board. A basis for fabulous comedy it undoubtedly is, but the scene typifies the director’s constant demystifying of his theatrical processes.
Gently emotive, and well assisted by Laurie Anderson’s nicely-measured original musical score, The Far Side of the Moon is bound to continue the love affair between Glasgow and Ex Machina when it comes to the Tramway in May.
This review was originally published in Scotland on Sunday in January 2001
© Mark Brown