Directed by Robert LePage
Produced by Ex Machina (Canada) and Theatre Sans Frontieres (UK)
Arts Centre, Melbourne, 5 August, 2012.
As any long haul air traveller will confirm, sitting still for hours on end can be fatiguing, even dangerous. Sitting still for lengthy periods in the theatre can be equally damaging to one’s sense of well being, especially if the performance on stage is dismal. And if any theatrical presentation has the ability to induce deep vein thrombosis, this is it. Thankfully, Robert LePage’s Lipsynch rewards those who are willing to endure its epic nine-hour duration with a consistently challenging, immersive experience that rarely lags, and, more often than not, provides insight into its exploration of language, speech and voice, three commonly confused aspects of human being.
Most of the commentaries on Lipsynch refer to the distinctions between these elements that are regularly conflated in everyday discourse without actually spelling out what these distinctions might be. It may be useful, therefore, to revisit some of the basic concepts outlined in Ferdinand de Saussure’s famous Course in General Linguistics before engaging with Lipsynch directly. Best known as one of the major founders of semiotics, de Saussure is concerned with language as a general system of signs. Signs convey meaning through there differences from other signs. Thus, there are no positive terms in language. Signs communicate by virtue of what they are not. For example, the word ‘cat’, in English, conveys the idea of a small furry mammal because it is not ‘bat’, ‘hat’ or ‘glass’. The actual form of the sign is arbitrary, for there is no reason why the symbols C-A-T refers to the feline creature so many of us adore. After all, each language has its own linguistic sing for the animal (‘Chat’ is the French word for Cat, for example). Signs need not take the form of sound or graphic marks, either, and Saussure, and the American philosopher and logician Charles Saunders Peirce, provide a catalogue of various sign types. This emphasis on the relationship between difference and communication has far reaching consequences for our understanding of identity. In short, signs, and by extension anything that a sign stands for, is determined by what it is not.
Ferdinand de Saussure also makes a distinction between langue (that is, a specific system of abstract rules internalized by particular regional or ethnic groups) and parole (that is, the specific linguistic utterances made by a specific speaker). This distinction is constantly alluded to in Lipsych, as is the physiology and materiality of speech, what we might term, after Roland Barthes, ‘the grain of the voice’. That is, the voice as sound, or, perhaps, more properly, the voice as a sound that possesses particular sonic properties shaped by an individual’s physicality. This ‘grain’ is also key marker of difference and identity, and makes it possible to make aesthetic judgments about the quality of any individual voice. Today, a number of specialist disciplines are concerned with language and the human voice, but the distinctions made by de Saussure and Peirce still serve as a useful starting point for differentiating between language, speech and voice. Here endeth the lesson, back to the work.
The performance is structured like a Robert Altman film. It tells the overlapping stories of nine characters from different cultures and countries who are connected in various ways, some more directly than others. While their paths converge and diverge, each section of the work remains focused on some aspect of the world of sound, and its elemental role in structuring human identity. The show begins with a stunning extract from Henryk Górecki’s Symphony #3, exquisitely performed by Rebecca Blankenship, who plays Ada, an opera singer. The lyrics, which are translated with surtitles as Blankenship sings, tells of a mother’s deep love and devotion to her child, flagging an elemental relationship that is at the heart of the play.
The scene following this transcendent musical introduction is set on an airplane. We see a woman holding a baby, or a bundle of blankets wrapped around a doll representing a baby. We hear the ear-splitting shrieks of the infant crying, which provides a stark contrast to Blankenship’s sublime operatic voice, which preceded it. Ada rises from her seat in the front end of the plane and moves towards the rear to find the source noise. She discovers that the young woman who is holding the baby is dead. We later learn that she is a drug addicted teen prostitute from Nicaragua. The plane is the perfect location for this fateful, chance encounter, which launches the play: passengers are almost randomly thrown together inside a metal tube, which, more often than not, duplicates the inequalities of the larger world. The rich pay for the privilege of more comfortable seats, and much better food. The hoi polloi are herded into the rear like cattle, and forced to endure cramped accommodation and putrid toilets for the duration of the flight. The airplane also literally connects the world, and functions as an apt metaphor for the cosmopolitan drama to come. The scene ends with the stunning image the dead girl walking across the top of the plane’s fuselage as a ghostly figure, a spectre released from the restricting laws of physics, free at last, perhaps.
In the next scene, Ada is keen to learn the fate of the motherless child. She rings the airline, and is given the run around until she speaks to Thomas, a medical student moonlighting as a phone operator at the airport. As it turns out, he is an opera fan, and is delighted to be speaking with Ada, whose voice he adores. Not only does he give Ada information about the child, but also he asks her out on a date. Once again a series of chance events lead to profound changes in the lives of the characters, and, once, again, the voice plays a central role in connecting the characters with each other. The play consistently uses high tech sets, but is not averse to exploiting some very old-fashioned theatrical transformations and tricks. For example, the actor playing Thomas also plays the other phone operators, deftly executing each character with simple shifts in accent and costuming. The next scene moves forward in time and we learn that Ada has adopted the child on the plane, a boy named Jeremy, who we see grow from a boy to an adult during a single journey on the London underground. This is engineered in a very old fashioned way through blocking that works best if you are not seated to close to the stage. There is no question that LePage and his troupe enjoy melodrama, and the work contains more chance encounters than a Charles Dickens plot, yet the operatic qualities of the plot, if one can call it a plot, don’t detract from the exploration of voice and sound.
Thomas is a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist who specializes in disorders that affect speech. He meets Ada on the underground, and this precipitous meeting leads to their eventual marriage. Meanwhile, Jeremy has grown into a moody teenager. He has a rebellious streak, which manifests in his rejection of opera for heavy metal. While his adopted mother tutors him in the finer points of classical opera he decides to go his own, eventually rejecting music altogether, and becoming a film maker. The actors all have superb versatile voices. Rick Miller, the actor who plays Jeremy (as well as a few other key roles) effortlessly moves between musical genres, and convincingly delivers classical, metal and even rap vocals during the course of the performance. This musical versatility is present in the various accents and languages he uses. The play foregrounds the musicality of language, and is delivered in a mixture of English, French, German and Spanish. There is also a wide range of regional English accents on display, and it’s intriguing to watch the scenes that are not subtitled since they, more than others, highlight this rich musical quality of speech. Thomas is treating a Jazz singer, Marie, who has a brain tumor. He warns her that the removal of the tumor will result in a form of aphasia, and she may lose her ability to speak. The surgery will also affect her memory. Later, Thomas falls in love with Marie, and leaves Ada (Thomas clearly has some kind of voice fetish, but he is not alone in appreciating the sensuality conveyed by sound).
The act devoted to Marie focuses on the aftermath of her operation, which deprives her of any memory of her father’s voice. This is one of the most effective chapters in Lipsynch in terms of demonstrating how contemporary digital sound technology has radically altered our understanding of the voice’s relationship to the body and brain. As Jacques Derrida famously argued, Western culture has consistently privileged speech over writing because of an assumed and misguided assumption that it coincides with consciousness. The living human voice speaks the truth because it is manifests as a form of presence whereas writing functions as a mechanical storage mechanism subject to manipulation and distortion when it reproduces bloodless thought severed from an intending consciousness. Today, a variety of mechanical and electronic storage mechanisms supplement writing as a ‘non-human’ recording technology. Moreover, digital technologies can know alter the sonic characteristics of the voice, which is now pliable and plastic. Shifts in pitch, tone and frequency are a mouse click away. Marie is desperate to recall her father’s voice, which has so cruelly been erased from her memory, so she employs a deaf woman, a skilled lip reader, to transcribe her father’s utterances from a stack of silent super 8 films. This is a key sequence in so many ways. The lip reader does as she’s instructed, but Marie is disappointed by the banal utterances extracted from her father’s moving lips. It’s a slow, complicated process of transcription, but it yields a cache of phrases spoken by the dearly departed parent. Marie is searching for what Roland Barthes has called the ‘grain’ of the voice, which is constituted by the unique aural features that function as a sign of singularity, for no two voices are exactly the same, which accounts for why some people have more compelling vocal chops than others. The voice, then, is a marker of individuality and identity. This explains why Marie’s desire to remember the ‘grain’ of her father’s voice is so strong. Luckily, she works as a sound artist, dubbing dialogue for the movies. In another incredulous coincidence, she’s employed to voice the character of Jeremy’s mother in a film Jeremy directs about his mother’s life, or at least what he imagines her life might have been had it been a melodrama (an event that is dramatized in the following chapter). Marie uses her connections with the movie industry to hire a voice artist, played by Rick Miller — the same actor who portrays Jeremy — who is given the onerous task of reproducing the lost voice. Of course, he fails dismally to find the correct tone. Marie’s sister, Michelle is observing proceedings from the control room. She suggests that Marie lip synchs to her father’s voice. The sound engineer lowers the pitch of Marie’s voice until it is transformed into something very close to the voice of her father. She finds her lost object of desire within herself, which underscores the fact that family resemblances are not exclusively visual.
Marie’s section of the performance also contains one of the most remarkable vocal performances in the work. No doubt drawing inspiration from Steve Reich’s celebrated compositions for tape recorder and live musicians, Marie uses a computer to create a complex four part vocal work. She sings a lengthy phrase. Hits the reset, or rewind icon, and duets with herself four times, producing a precise composition that had the audience applauding at its conclusion. There are sections of Lipsynch that use technology in a gratuitous and sometimes unnecessary way, but this was not one of them. The audience can see Marie’s computer screen, which is projected on a large cyclorama behind her while she manipulates the computer. The audience sees a pictorial representation of the waveforms created by Marie as she sings, thereby producing a stunning example of how digital technology has radically altered the capabilities of the human voice. The pliable, liquid qualities of sound are turned into visual images that make a point that is no less profound for being obvious.
In the next section of the play Jeremy has rejected music as a career, and has become a film director. He’s making a film about his birth mother, and this section of the performance mostly takes place on the film’s set, and the post- production sound studio where we see Foley artists create the Film’s soundtrack. There are a number of complex set transformations, which some might find intrusive and clumsy. LePage actually uses these transitions to his advantage by having one of the characters ‘direct’ the stage crew. Is she directing movement on the fictional soundstage, or is she directing the play? Of course, she’s doing both, and making a self-reflexive meta-theatrical gesture at the same time. In many ways, Lipsynch draws on a wide range of modernist concepts — there are echoes of Pirandello and Brecht spread throughout the work.
Jeremy’s film is a somewhat gauche melodrama — a soapy, romanticized imagining of his birth mother’s past life. There are elements of bedroom farce, and the tone is generally comic (Jeremy falls in love with his ‘leading lady’ who betrays him by having a fling with the leading man — the Oedipal overtones of this risible episode are underscored by having Jeremy’s love interest played by the same actress, Nuria Garcia, that plays Lupe, his mother). It appears that Jeremy might have been better off pursuing a career in Heavy Metal, for his directorial chops are rather poor. He uses a multinational cast who speak in a wide range of languages that are not always translated. This has the effect of once again highlighting the musicality of speech — its tonal and rhythmic qualities become exaggerated when the audience cannot focus on its substantive content. The ‘grain’ of the voice is thereby exposed.
Jeremy’s chapter also enables LePage to expose the trickery behind film production, and draw attention to some of the connections between theatre and film that are often overlooked. For example, Foley artists are essentially highly skilled performers, whose precise bodily movements and vocal techniques are part of a theatrical repertoire. He also cleverly reveals the technological processes involved in creating the cinematic illusion. The best example of this is when we see the shambolic last scene of the film within the play being recorded. The lead actress loses her voice after her night of infidelity with the leading man, and can only manage a few frog-like croaks where she is require to sing, and produce a poignant, haunting tonality. She later dubs the required song via an international Internet link, which enables two recording studios to work in unison despite being in different geographical sites.
The use of various screen technologies in theatre can often be gratuitous, and often projections detract from the live performers. For the most part, the projections in Lipsynch are integral to the scenes in which they appear. This is especially true of the ‘Jeremy’ section of the work, which deftly uses screen projections to advance the story or make an argument about the constructed nature of representation itself. Indeed, Lipsynch does a better job of deconstructing cinema than most filmic attempts to do the same thing.
The next part of the work, ‘Sarah’, primarily deals with the role that the human voice plays in shaping identity, and LePage uses literal Lip-synching to convey the crucial connection between voice and social status. Accent, especially in the UK, is a major marker of class. Sarah is a working-class woman from Manchester. She is also a victim of sexual abuse, and a former prostitute. The scene opens with her pottering around the suburban home of Ada’s old speech therapist that we’ve previously met in an earlier section of the play. Sarah is the speech therapist’s caregiver. She’s listening to the radio, puffing on a cigarette, and singing along with the Bacharach/David tune, ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’ when we first meet her. At the conclusion of the song we hear the clipped, crisp, tones of a BBC newsreader’s so-called Received Pronunciation (RP), a figure that will become central to this part of the work.
When the speech therapist dies Sarah asks Ada, who has been financially supporting her former mentor, to keep her in mind for any future work. While the two women occupy different ends of the class and vocal spectrum, they are brought together by chance and circumstance. Sarah has a very ordinary singing voice, an everyday voice that is never going to be mistaken for Ada’s highly trained vocal instrument. Nonetheless, there is a poignant quality to her tone. Tone plays a significant role in this section of Lipsynch, and the importance of tone as a signifier of status is stated and restated in various ways. For example, the tinny sound of the domestic radio in the kitchen morphs into the high fidelity sound of a radio studio in a manner that elegantly and subtly introduces this key theme.
Sarah appears on a BBC radio program about prostitution. The set is transformed into a radio studio for this section of the play, and the actors sit around a studio table, and lip-synch to a recording of what sounds like an actual radio program about prostitution. The actors perform flawlessly, even though the male prostitute is played by a woman, Nuria Garcia, in another overtly Brechtian gesture, which also acknowledges the role lip-synching plays in drag performances. LePage’s actors are nothing if not versatile. Before leaving the studio, Sarah notices something familiar about the newsreader that has now occupied the studio she has recently vacated. She stares at him intently, incredulously. We learn that the man’s name is Tony Briggs, and he is Sarah’s brother, and that he sexually abused his sister when they were teenagers. The victim of sexual abuse himself, Tony decided to leave Manchester for London where he totally reinvents himself by changing his regional Manchester accent for faultless RP English. Predictably, Sarah confronts Tony and the scene inexorably moves to its inevitable conclusion — Tony commits suicide, and Sarah leaves London. This scenario could have been banal had it not been for the reference to Ovid’s telling of the Narcissus and Echo myth, which Tony is recording when Sarah confronts him. The myth overtly addresses the hierarchical relationship between image and sound, thereby continuing to stress the disjunction between the two that is so obviously apparent in the cinema. The scene also raises the vexed question of whether the female voice is used differently in technological mediums of representation. Remember, echo falls in love with Narcissus, who is transfixed by his own image, and therefore, oblivious to her overtures. Echo is also condemned to secondary status in the relationship, and can only communicate by repeating the last words of her interlocutors. The Sarah section of evoked Kaja Silverman’s work on the function of the female voice in the cinema.
The next section of the performance, Sebastian, is, on one level, an extended fart joke. However, while it is obviously intended to provide comic relief, it also makes a number of important points about the disembodied voice. Sebastian is one of the sound technicians working on Jeremy’s film. He receives news of his father’s death, and travels to Spain where he must identify his father’s body, and ensure that it is buried according to the customs of his village. The dead father may have expired, but he’s far from silent when Sebastian encounters him in the morgue. The corpse emits a series of farting sounds, which terrify Sebastian. The doctors explain that it is perfectly normal for the deceased to make all manner of sounds after death. Of course, the dead can also leave several different kinds of acoustic and aural traces of their life on various recording mediums, which function as an archive for the human voice. Sebastian’s father leaves his son a series of tape recordings that preserve his ‘living’ voice in mechanical form. Sebastian, in order to acquit his familial duties, uses his expertise as a sound engineer to manipulate various tape recordings. Sebastian’s slapstick moment in the spotlights concludes with a final, uproarious fart.
The focus on the disembodied voice, and the social and political status of the regional accent are continued in the next section of Lipsynch, which is dedicated to a character named Jackson, a Scottish detective assigned to investigating the apparent suicide of Tony Briggs. Jackson, a middle-aged man who is going through a divorce, is self-deprecating and droll, especially when he interacts with the various artificial voices that pepper this section of the play. Once again, Lipsynch explores the connection between accent and status, the voice and identity. Jackson’s former wife is French, and he’s reminded of her by his GPS system, which guides him through his various car journeys in a female French accent. Briggs has just sprung for an expensive set of Tango lessons with his wife, and the scene opens with his attempt to cancel the lessons on the grounds that he no longer has a partner. This is the first of many telephone conversations in this section of the play, and sets up a running gag about Jackson’s attempts to get his money’s worth out of the lessons by asking almost every female he meets to accompany him. Tony Briggs’ disembodied voice also appears throughout the scene, underscoring the fact the voice lives on after death in a myriad of storage mechanisms. From answer phone messages to railway timetable announcements, Briggs’ disembodied voice lives on, and is manipulated in contexts that he could not foresee as Briggs conducts his investigation. We learn that Briggs, and Sebastian, the sound engineer, were friends and business partners, who specialized in voice recordings. Sebastian demonstrates the partnership for Jackson, by manipulating Briggs voice on a synthesizer. The voice is no longer a purely human phenomena since various artificial voices are now part of everyday life (of course, the slightly creepy, menacing computer generated voice has been a staple of science fiction films since Kubrick’s infamous Hal ran amuck in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Jackson is endearing character, a somewhat shambolic clown who bears more than a passing resemblance to Peter Falk’s TV detective, Colombo. Jackson uses his chaotic persona to disguise his razor sharp detective’s instincts, which lead him to Manchester where he finds Briggs’ sister, Sarah, working as a street prostitute. Pretending to be a ‘John’ he lures Sarah into his car. He cleverly manipulates the conversation until Sarah confesses that she is Brigg’s fugitive sister, but pleads her innocence. Both characters are outsiders, marked by the sound of their respective voices as non-normative subjects condemned to betray their class origins with every utterance.
The penultimate section of the performance concerns Michelle, Marie’s fragile sister who suffers from depression, beautifully played by Lise Castonguay. This section of the play is especially clever and poignant. LePage presents the same key sequence twice. Michelle works in a bookstore — she is an avid reader, and lover of literature, which provides her with some degree of respite from her mental illness. We see her go about her business, and interact with a couple of characters, but we, the audience, cannot hear a word she says, for the set has been transformed into a street scape and we see the action through a shop window. LePage uses clever visual projections to convey the harshness and beauty of the Canadian winter. The scene is bathed in the surreal glow of projected light points, which create a stylized snowfall. This visual setting creates an especially atmospheric environment for the ensuing action. We can hear bits of business occur on the street, and we even see the phantoms that plague Michelle’s troubled mind, but we don’t learn anything about the conversations inside the shop until we witness until the scene is replayed from the inside of the shop. The set, which is by now a key element in the production, shifts the point of view by inverting itself, and revealing the internal layout of the shop.
Silence is a key component of language. If words were not separated by silent spaces language ceases to function. Of course, it’s the space, the silence between words that make speech intelligible, but LePage’s appears to be more interested in drawing attention to the the physical movements involved the production of speech. The absence of sound, or, more properly, the absence of the actors’ voices foreground the movement of their lips and their bodily gestures. Thus the physical mechanics of speech become the focus of the first part of the sequence, which plays out a bit like a silent film.
We learn, when the scene is replayed from the opposite side of the 180 degree line that Marie is actively involved with her customers, recommending books, establishing a personal relationship with them by taking an interest in their reading habits. A student, played by the incredibly versatile Rick Miller, needs to buy an expensive book, which he cannot afford. After extolling the merits of its contents and explaining her attachment to the work, Marie follows the student out of her shop and offers to lend him the book (which he returns later in the sequence). After a change of scene, which sees Marie visit Michelle with her fiancé, Thomas — the Neurosurgeon formerly married the opera singer, Ada — we return to the shop, which hosts a poetry reading involving the student who contributes to the evening’s proceedings by performing a Rap. Marie, a closet poet, reads from her own writings, and conveys the therapeutic power of language pressed into the service of art.
The final segment of the performance returns to Lupe, the young woman who dies on the plane. In many ways, this is the weakest part of an otherwise brilliant production. LePage is obviously searching for some kind of resolution that brings the epic performance to a satisfying conclusion. The attempt to reveal the mystery of Lupe’s life, and the events leading to her untimely death is clumsy, and somewhat sentimental. It detracts from the production’s relentless focus on speech, language and voice by pushing the melodrama up a few notches, so the irony and wit, which is one of the most impressive characteristics of the performance, is almost totally absent in the dénouement. We learn that Lupe was a naïve young girl from Nicaragua who was sold into prostitution by an unscrupulous uncle. Long story short, Lupe becomes a drug-addicted prostitute in Hamburg where she is enslaved by the couple she met in her uncle’s bar. She is forced to meet a filmmaker who is documenting the lives of prostitutes in Hamburg. After an initial period of awkwardness and suspicion Lupe agrees to tell her story on camera. Then, in an incredulous sequence, her German captors are killed in a traffic accident. Lupe is thrown free of the doomed vehicle. Despite being dangerously addled by drugs, she gets on a plane to London with her young child, whose paternal parentage is unknown.
We’ve already seen Lupe’s death, so the rest of the sequence shows how Ada came to adopt Jeremy, and Jeremy finally hears his Mother’s tragic story from the videotape made by the documentary filmmaker. Lupe’s life on the street unfolds in a sequence that is contains one of the few technological missteps in the show. One of the male actors moves his hands over his naked upper chest in front of a live video camera, which is then fed to a projector, which superimposes this image on Lupe’s body. This creates the illusion of Lupe being groped by her clients. If the image is supposed to convey the sense of violation the character feels in this situation, it misses the mark. It almost trivializes Lupe’s experience. Sometimes, projections just don’t work, and this was one of the few moments in Lipsynch where the technology is plain intrusive, and gratuitous.
The sequence concludes with a tableau of Ada, Lupe and Jeremy. Ada reprises the Górecki music heard at the very beginning of the work, thereby underscoring the operatic emotionalism of this final reunion between mother (s) and son. Opera is not a genre known for its subtlety, so perhaps it is unfair to be too harsh on the final scene of the work, which is obviously attempting to wrench every last drop of sentiment from Ada’s magnificent voice in keeping with the conventions of this most emotive art form. Jeremy, at the end of the play, has discovered something both profound and obvious about the origins of his cosmopolitan identity — he is the product of language and sound. The death of his birth mother, Lupe, throws him into a linguistic universe that could have been very different from the one he knows. Instead of speaking his birth mother’s mother tongue, Spanish, Jeremy grows up with a German-speaking opera star (who is fluent in several European languages) in London. The mastery of language is dependent on context and location; it is not something that is transmitted as part of our genetic inheritance from our biological parents. In fact, the play goes some way towards exposing the commonly held view that language is a purely human phenomenon that distinguishes humans from other living beings, and non-living entities. Language is mysterious, sublime, liquid.
On the face of it, Lipsynch asks a lot of its prospective audience. After all, if you see the play in a single sitting, you are essentially sacrificing an entire day of your life, and paying a fairly hefty admission price for the privilege. Thankfully, I am confident in reporting that the experience is well worth the sacrifice of time and money. Lipsynch is, as I noted at the outset, immersive, captivating, and ultimately rewarding. The performance is so cleverly paced and structured that time passes quickly. The experience is akin to having a DVD binge on a high-quality television series like The Sopranos, The Wire or Six Feet Under — yes, the production is that good. This is something not to be missed.