Robert Lepage ’s stage spectacles are always full of surprise, but his latest is a surprise in itself – a cri de coeur against the Parti Québécois’s proposed Charter of Values.
Hearts is the second of a planned quartet of plays by Quebec’s most celebrated theatre creator, each themed around a different playing-card suit and designed to tour a network of European theatres-in-the-round.
But this second chapter, currently playing (mostly in French) in Montreal under the title Coeur, is fuelled by fury at a very local issue: the attempt to ban hijabs and other religious garb from the public sphere, and the fear and loathing that may lie beneath that short-sighted policy.
Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts? Created with seven international actors and dramaturge Peder Bjurman, Hearts explores the roots of the uneasy relationship between the French and Arab peoples, in a plot that stretches from the early days of France’s colonization of Algeria to modern-day Quebec.
In the present day, Quebec City cab driver Chaffik (Reda Guerinik) and cinema historian Judith (Catherine Hughes) fall for one another while stuck in a traffic jam due to construction – just one of many pointed satirical details in the script. Through a cleverly staged pair of overlapping family dinners, we meet Chaffik’s father and grandmother, who he believes are originally from Morocco, and Judith’s mother and father, who are Québécoise and Australian, respectively.
In Judith’s family, Lepage, who himself grew up in a bilingual household, finds great humour in the alternation from French to English in conversation and comportment. But he is at his most cutting here, too.
When her relationship with Chaffik stumbles, Judith’s mother (Louis Fortier, one of a pair of gender benders in the cast) is visibly relieved, then disconcerted to find that her daughter is still interested in Islam and has taken to wearing a head scarf. “We thought we instilled values in you,” she protests, in a line designed to sting – and that seems less over-the-top than it might otherwise given recent political discourse.
Chaffik, meanwhile, discovers a hidden family secret after his father goes into cardiac arrest – one that sends him off on a globe-trotting journey that is familiar from much of Lepage’s work, but distinctly darker in its trajectory.
Chaffik and Judith’s scenes are interwoven with the history of French colonization in North Africa told through the eyes of famous artists. First up is the 19th-century French conjurer Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (Olivier Normand), discovered regaling audiences in the marketplace with a “little Arab” automaton that can perform card tricks.
Robert-Houdin is enlisted by the emperor Napoleon III to go to Algeria on a quixotic mission to convince the rebels into giving up arms by mesmerizing them with his legerdemain. It sounds like something straight out of a Tintin comic, but is actually taken from the history books. Later, Nadar, an early photographer and balloonist, plays a crucial part in the plot as well, as does Georges Méliès, the magician and cinema pioneer (and subject of Martin Scorsese’s recent animated film, Hugo).
Among Lepage’s cast of actors, the most fascinating is Kathryn Hunter, an extraordinary English actor who most recently played Puck in Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in New York. Here, she incarnates both the youngest and oldest characters on stage with equally impressive physicality – as well as, I later discovered with astonishment, an automaton or two.
Hearts certainly strays into soap-opera territory – and the first half of an evening that stretches to 31/2 hours feels like an overlong prologue. But the romance at the centre works thanks to the quiet charisma of Guerinik and Hughes, and when the plot all comes together in the second half, it feels worth the slow start. Lepage’s very creative visuals link 19th-century photography to 20th-century bomb-making, magic tricks to torture chambers.
As with Playing Cards: Spades, which was seen at Toronto’s Luminato Festival in 2012, Hearts has an impressive circular design (by Michel Gauthier and Jean Hazel) full of ingenious compartments. But in linking colonialism’s mission to bring civilization and Christianity to the Arabs to similar desires to secularize Muslims at home today, the play is passionate and persuasive. Lepage has never been an overtly political theatre creator, but, as an internationalist, the proposed Charter obviously sits in his craw – and through Robert-Houdin he shows that art and politics are actually inseparable, even when it comes to magic.
With Hearts, Lepage once again shows his own talents as a stage magician – but there are more than just tricks up his sleeve. This time, he’s wearing his heart on his sleeve, too.
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