Theatre review: The Blue Dragon

by **

Dear Dad

Pierre is an erstwhile artist from Quebec. In the pre-quel to this play, The Dragons’ Trilogy, he left his home country for the ‘great unknown’ of China. Now, some 20 years later, he is running a gallery in Shanghai.

Xiao Ling is a young and ambitious Chinese artist who is exhibiting in Pierre‘s gallery. She was formerly a tattoo artist who gave Pierre his eponymous Blue Dragon. Portrayed as a Gen-Y in a society where traditions and ancient mores collide with imported occidental practices as the economy grows and technology advances, Xiao Ling specialises in self-portraits that display unbridled emotional expressions captured with a mobile phone. She is sleeping with Pierre, but is not in love with him. Clearly believing that talent alone is not enough to get ahead, she also seeks out other gallery owners with a combination of female charm and sexual favours.

Claire is a Montreal advertising executive in her late 40s whose career has reached its twilight years. A deepening alcoholic with an echo-ingly hollow inner life, she comes to Shanghai to adopt a baby. She stays with Pierre who was her husband in another life and casts a decidedly condescending eye on his Chinese (and chintzy) lifestyle. Claire spurns Pierre initially, pinning her dreams and hopes on a new beginning with her adopted child. But when that adoption fails to transpire, she flails in entreaty and despair.

The Blue Dragon is a breathtaking play with a compelling narrative. Written by Robert Lepage and Marie Michaud, it is a powerful , if subtle, metaphor for encounters with China by three groups of people: those who endeavour to capitalise on its growth to flourish (Pierre), those who wish for a genuine partnership/exchange (Claire) and those born into the country themselves (Xiao Ling). As Robert Lepage notes, “Is this gigantic whale [China] about to swallow us whole? Will it transform itself, as in Hebrew folklore, into a golem that will crush us all?”

Often, The Blue Dragon feels like a series of collage where people, pushbikes and other props are superimposed on screens that bear projected images. Hence, we see the (projected) Arrival and Departure information board when Claire arrives (then departs) at the airport, multiplying faces of Van Gogh on canvas as Xiao Ling is working away, falling snow — albeit two-dimensional — outside of Pierre‘s warehouse-home.

Through the remarkable collaboration among the whole crew in general, and Michel Gauthier (Set Designer), David Leclerc (Projection Designer), Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun (Lighting Designer) in particular, we are transported from scene to scene with film-like seamlessness. Between our consciousness, for instance, Claire and Xiao Ling leave Pierre‘s bachelor pad for an effect-laden bicycle ride across the cityscape before settling down for an intimate and revelatory drink — each scene set against contrasting backdrops.

What is truly awesome, however, is the fascinating interplay of characters with imagery. We see this in the translation of Pierre‘s brushstrokes into virtual calligraphy cleverly created with infra-red technology, in the carving on his skin by a virtual knife, in the virtual raindrops on Xiao Ling‘s dancing sleeves.

Lepage tests the elasticity of each of the three troubled lives by further interweaving them one in the other. An innocent friendship blossoms between Claire and Xiao Ling — despite the latter’s realisation of the former’s relationship with Pierre; Claire is the first to know of Xiao Ling‘s pregnancy. Uncertain about who has fathered her child and unable to return to Pierre, Xiao Ling leaves for her other sponsor-lover. The plot thickens when she goes on to have the baby, presumably persuaded by this other lover who had possibly assumed the baby to be his. When the baby is born with Caucasian eyes, however, Xiao Ling is abandoned and forced into mundane labour to make ends meet. She teeters on the brink of psychological meltdown.

Pierre (Henri Chasse) and Claire (Marie Michaud) are unequivocally accomplished actors, delivering sterling performances. Chasse’s accented Mandarin tongue makes for a convincing ex-pat; his slightly unkempt ruggedness conveys a fading middle-aged artist and his various expressions of  disillusionment, anger and aimlessness are vivid. Michaud radiates poise, appropriately earnest, despairing and hopeful. Although this is Xiao Ling’s (Tai Wei Foo) first foray as an actress, she is remarkably confident. Trained as a dancer, her choreography and rendition of authentic Chinese dance lend a studiedly Oriental flavour.

Notwithstanding, we are offered random glimpses into this unstoppable country: mass production of all things including Van Gogh’s self-portrait (and babies?), rampant abortions, air pollution (face-masks) and rapid urbanisation.

At the end, a couple of years later, Pierre’s gallery is expropriated by the Chinese authorities for urban expansion; he contemplates his future. Claire returns on business, bearing job prospects for a talented artist; she seeks out Xiao Ling but instead finds her own personal hopes renewed afresh. Against a backdrop of soft falling snow, Pierre and Claire share in their own reflections.

While The Blue Dragon would have been simply magical were the curtains to fall right there — to leave us to conjure our own denouement — three plausible endings are blatantly forced down our throats, so to speak, never mind in an almost farcical manner. We leave the theatre, feeling brutally robbed of what could have been a dazzling masterpiece.

The Blue Dragon

the Arts Centre, Playhouse

Fri 8 – Sat 9 Oct

Mon 11 – Tue 12 Oct at 8pm

Sat 9 Oct at 2pm

Sun 10 Oct at 6pm