Robert Lepage’s controversial Kanata opens in Paris as a rehearsal

Criticized for the lack of Indigenous presence in its production, Kanata is confused and confusing, but also a brave lunge at discussions we need to have.

Marianne Ackerman, Special to the Montreal Gazette

PARIS — I was warming my hands by a wood stove in the waiting room when a member of the Théâtre du Soleil collective popped by to say the première of Robert Lepage’s Kanata had just been declared a rehearsal. Ticket holders were invited to get their money back and watch the Saturday afternoon performance for free.

Four years in the making, workshops in New York, Vancouver, Quebec City, and still not ready? Some things never change, including Lepage’s down-to-the-wire method. Having worked with him twice and seen many premières, I’m convinced the man knows no other way.

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Notwithstanding the panic signal, Soleil’s 79-year-old founder Ariane Mnouchkine remained her unflappable self, smiling warmly as she stood outside the cavernous theatre to shake hands with all 500 theatregoers who had found their way to the Bois de Vincennes on a bitterly cold day, despite a shutdown of main métro lines by the presence of yellow-vest protesters in the streets of central Paris.

With a cast of 33, and at 2 1/2 hours with no intermission, Kanata — Épisode I: La Controverse is an emotionally wrenching piece of theatre, horrifying on the level of Greek tragedy and at moments hard to watch. It’s also exquisitely beautiful, comical, lyrical, and brimming with empathy for the human misery it shoves in your face. Most assuredly, it’s preview-level work, and will remain unchanged through the end of the Paris run on Feb. 17. Maybe forever, unless Lepage finds the time and resources to continue, which surely this work deserves.

When it was over, my immediate reaction was to join the standing ovation. Not because it is the final word on a subject that will leave any Canadian sick with shame, nor because it is a clear, coherent theatrical work. Nada. Kanata — Épisode I has miles to go before it soars. It’s confused and confusing, sometimes embarrassing. But it’s also a brave lunge at several important discussions that, as citizens and artists, we need to have.

Kanata’s public life began with a firestorm set last summer by an open letter in Le Devoir, signed by Indigenous artists, criticizing the absence of First Nations artists in a work focusing on their story. A five-hour meeting was held between Mnouchkine and Lepage and signatories in Montreal. Important partners withdrew. Plans for an international tour were cancelled. Then Mnouchkine and Lepage announced Kanata would go ahead in Paris, as part of the Festival d’automne, despite an extremely reduced budget (Lepage working for free) and only 3 1/2 weeks of rehearsal.

The result, Épisode I, carries the debate onstage, telling the story of artists drawn into the maelstrom of real-life events, grappling with how to respond in their work.

The opening scenes unfold like a dream. Flanked by a forest of perfectly cylindrical pillars, a man and a woman — museum curators — discuss the merits of 19th-century paintings of Indigenous people by European artists, then disappear into fog. Enter a drifting canoe paddled by a First Nations filmmaker capturing wilderness sounds on tape. A black bear ambles across the stage, two Mounties pass in ceremonial red jackets, the idyll broken suddenly by roaring chainsaws as a swarm of loggers reduce the woods to bare stage. A totem pole is wrecked. Mounties drag an Indigenous woman off screaming, and hand her baby to a priest.

Flash forward to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, 2000, where a young French couple, a painter and an actor, rent a loft from an Asian woman who owns the building. Their names plucked from Shakespeare’s Tempest, Miranda and Ferdinand are the archetypal gushing lovers in a strange new land.

There the dream ends, and a documentary nightmare begins, dissecting the daily tragedy of Canada’s Indigenous peoples at the dismal end of a wide spectrum: missing women found murdered, junkies desperate for the next fix, social workers and police burdened with inadequate resources, paralyzed by power wrangles. We’re taken to Robert Pickton’s pig farm, made to watch as he snaps handcuffs on a young Indigenous woman, drags her into his caravan, splashes her blood on the window. We follow the actor playing Pickton via film into a jail cell, where an actor posing as a fellow killer goads him into confession.

Meanwhile, the French characters struggle with painter’s block, actor’s woes. These parallel stories grate, amuse, appall and intersect, sometimes with jarring effect. Ultimately, bleak reality overwhelms the artists’ journey. Ferdinand fails to find his place in “Hollywood North.” The couple argue and break up, leaving Miranda to paint portraits of the women Pickton killed — artwork that their grieving mothers can’t accept.

The ending is Miranda’s artistic breakthrough: a wild abstract painting binge on the fourth wall, while in her dreams the dead and the grief-stricken are happily reunited. In life, there is no meeting of minds and hearts. Art on trial pleads guilty.

I had expected Lepage would revisit the story of English actor Edmund Kean’s 1826 encounter with the Huron-Wyandots of Lorette. We co-wrote a play on that theme, called Alanienouidet, which he directed at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre in 1992. (I’d learned of the historical incident from a column by Edgar Andrew Collard in the Montreal Gazette.) Wyandot actor and director Yves Sioui Durand worked as research consultant and performed the role of Yellow Wolf. Other Indigenous roles were played by non-Indigenous actors … speaking Mohawk.

I returned to the material for my play Venus of Dublin (presented at Centaur Theatre in 2000), focusing on Kean’s memory of the event, and the importance of the identity bestowed by his being welcomed into the Wyandot tribe.

When I spoke with Lepage backstage after Saturday’s performance, he said the Kean story was to have featured in other episodes of Kanata. Originally, the Vancouver material was Part 3, but he lacked the budget for rehearsals and period costumes. Reaction to this scaled-down work will determine whether the trilogy has a future.

As for the absence of Indigenous involvement, that debate also continues. Two signatories to the letter in Le Devoir were on hand for the first performance: Abenaki filmmaker Kim O’Bomsawin and Innu writer Maya Cousineau Mollen, brought over by the association Décoloniser les arts.

“It’s not a question of the actors — the cast could remain the same,” O’Bomsawin said. “But having an (Indigenous) co-writer or co-director could have avoided the feeling of inauthenticity. A vision from the inside would have allowed the team to go deeper, avoid stereotypes.”

Cousineau Mollen agreed. “Unfortunately, Ariane Mnouchkine and Robert Lepage missed a great opportunity to work with us. That’s what I find sad.”

Ah, but with Lepage, to date, there are no fatal mistakes — only first drafts.

A Very Very Very Dark Matter
Published in the Globe and Mail, November 2, 2018by Marianne Ackerman

In the days leading up to the premiere of his new play A Very Very Very Dark Matter at London’s Bridge Theatre, Martin McDonagh kept out of sight. No interviews or personal appearances. The official word was he’d decided to “let the play speak for itself.” After a slew of savage and very funny hit plays, the writer-director of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri publicly declared a strong preference for film over theatre, which he said can never be as edgy in the way he wants it to be.

As it turns out, disdain for the medium, followed by authorial silence, now looks like a very very very shrewd strategy. Following the opening last month, top London theatre critics tied themselves in knots trying to explain why a play with cardboard characters, haphazard structure and gleefully foul-mouthed dialogue (sometimes delivered by children) may be a work of genius, and what it all means.

At 85 minutes with no intermission, A Very Very Very Dark Matter is jokey, spooky, wobbly, bloody, downright mystifying. But then, the main character is Hans Christian Andersen, the 19th-century children’s lit author whose greatest hits include The Emperor’s New Clothes.

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Eschewing his own immense talent for plot and character, McDonagh takes aim at the creative imagination, the whole Western-civ package of mainly male artistic celebrity, which he depicts as rooted in falseness and exploitation, bound to end in violence. The settings are Andersen’s Copenhagen attic and, later, Charles Dickens’s London dining room, where they meet. The two literary icons are presented as, respectively, a cruel bumbler and a grouchy, washed-up womanizer. They’ve farmed out the labour of penning their popular books to a pair of Congolese pygmies (sisters) kept in captivity. Andersen’s ghost writer Mbute Masakele (who he re-names Marjory) is locked in a three-foot cage suspended pendulum style from the attic rafters. Dickens’s scribe has recently died, hence he’s stalled on the ending of his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Says Andersen, “I change the bits I don’t like and then erase all the rest from history. I’m more like a German theatre director.” Among the bits they argue over are titles: Marjory wanted The Little Black Mermaid. Dickens would have preferred something like Pretty Big Expectations, but caved.

While Andersen overstays his welcome in London, the attic is invaded by two Belgium time-travelling hit men, Barry and Dirk, who Marjory somehow knows will take part in the slaughter of 10 million Congolese, under instructions from Belgium’s King Leopold II – if she doesn’t stop them. Jim Broadbent as Andersen and Phil Daniels as Dickens are hilarious, although the laughs, even out of their own mouths, are often at their expense. Women are the serious centre; Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory and Elizabeth Berrington as Dickens’s long-suffering wife, Catherine, come off as bitterly wise next to the buffoonery of the men. Rapid dialogue is full of American idioms and invented slang, rendered as a rain of exclamation marks on the page.

Leaving a matinee performance after joining in polite applause, I wandered out into an unseasonably mild fall afternoon with the queasy feeling that some very big talents were about to suffer an expensive hit to their noble ambitions. Launched last October by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, who over a decade at The National tripled the budget, produced many hits and won a slew of awards, The Bridge is London’s first big new playhouse in decades, and the first commercial venture of its size outside the West End.

Although London stages are enjoying boom times – sales are up 24 per cent since 2000 and ticket prices are high – venues offering challenging work have devised a myriad of clever pricing schemes as insulation against the fickle rich. I heard talk of an app that offers budget-conscious subscribers cut-rate prices on unsold seats, but they have to promise to dress nicely, stay to the end and applaud. Apparently spies keep watch.

Reading through the day-after reviews, I found rampant bet hedging, or call it vertiginous empathy. Or, maybe critics rushing into print were sincerely afraid of missing out on this century’s first Waiting for Godot.

With 50-plus years as a critic under his belt, The Guardian’s Michael Billington dared opine. “Part of McDonagh’s mission, I suspect, is to dismantle the great-man theory of literary history … The link between literary plagiarism and genocidal oppression is a risky one but you see what McDonagh is driving at … He camouflages his argument with a wild inventiveness. … It’s a play you will either like or loathe. For me, it confirms that McDonagh is a genuine original with a talent to disturb.”

Time Out critic Andrzej Lukowski predicted some would find it gratuitously offensive and/or racist, but thought the play was sincere about the evils of colonialism. “I’d be lying if I said all this was crystal clear: the play is indulgent, opaque and messy, and risks coming across as more offensive than it probably is. … It’s difficult to imagine that a playwright of less standing than McDonagh would possibly be able to get something as weird as this off the ground in a theatre the size of The Bridge.”

Whether McDonagh’s latest rip can pack a three-month run at The Bridge is anybody’s guess. But I won’t hesitate to predict the freshly published text could flourish in smaller, dustier, fringier venues, where actors of far less range than this esteemed crew would have a ball with lines such as, “She’s very self assured for a midget who’s about to be executed” and “Well, it’s just makeuppy, isn’t it? It’s just what I do, I makey-uppy things.” Unless, of course, the London public decides the Emperor’s new clothes are just dandy, in which case the rights will be locked up for ages.

Marianne Ackerman on Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch

Twenty pages into The Goldfinch (Little Brown and Company, 2013) I started having chest pains, accompanied by shortness of breath. My wrist tingled. I figured it must be something I ate, or maybe early signs of a heart attack. But the most obvious source of discomfort lay close at hand, no more than twelve, maybe fourteen inches from my face.

Donna Tartt’s long-awaited new novel is a 771-page hardcover, weighing in at 1.08 kilos, which is a lot to support during so many hours of reading. It’s a mesmerizing experience, one I wouldn’t want to repeat soon. How often can you afford to put your life on hold for a novel?

The narrator, Theo Decker, New York-born, late twenties, begins in a hotel room in Amsterdam and flashes back to age 13 when a terrible explosion in a museum killed his mother and put a small, precious oil painting into his possession.

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Here is a chronology of how this book won me over, and what to expect, if you read like me:

  1. At first I was irritated by choppy prose. The voice and metaphors were too erudite for a self-conscious teenager. I didn’t buy into the drama, and had to go back and re-read some passages. It sounded like Donna Tartt talking, a foxy southern intellectual, too clever by half.
  2. By page 207, the action left New York and I realized I was extremely involved with the character, fearful even. I lost sight of Tartt’s cleverness and began to suspect a cruel streak, which always keeps you going.
  3. When Theo’s exile ends, he goes back to NYC and finds his perception has changed. I began to think of Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz. So many strange and colourful things happening, it could have been a dream. But the sheer amount of detail and the emotional high stakes were engrossing, oddly paralleled with the role of actual drugs, Rx and street. By this time I was carrying the book everywhere, in case a chance to read came up.
  4. As Theo takes charge of his life, the first four hundred pages turn out to have been the elaborate scaffolding of a thriller. Guns, parking garage, seedy characters, the classic elements. Impressive, and just the tempo needed to sustain a few hundred pages more.
  5. I read Part Five in one sitting – actually, lying in bed again. This time Theo’s maturity felt earned, and the beginning made sense. The Goldfinch transcends genre, offering redemption for the characters and a profound meditation on the spiritual quality of art.

Donna Tartt spent ten years writing her third novel, and won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her trouble. James Wood took her apart in The New Yorker for relying too heavily on genre elements, being too bulky, commercial. I don’t agree. Neither did anybody on Goodreads.

Tartt’s project is thoroughly modern. The enemies of concentration are so fierce these days that a truly ambitious writer should be praised for taking extreme measures to lure readers into her work and keep them there for as long as possible. The sheer weight of the book, the time it commands, is part of its power. The ending is perfect. Moral, conclusive, open.


Guernica Editions will publish Holy Fools, a novella and two stories by Marianne Ackerman in the fall of 2014. This post appeared originally on The Rover and is posted here with permission from the author.