Without doubt, it was an important night in Vancouver theatre history: Robert Lepage was to take to the stage to perform his masterpiece The Far Side of the Moon. This extraordinary moment – Lepage playing the role he originated more than a decade ago – was not initially supposed to happen. And then it almost didn't. After three performances were shut down last weekend by a labour dispute at the university that's housing the theatre, a strike was called for Wednesday – the night Lepage was scheduled to make his first performance in English (he did it in French the previous night).
They say the show must go on, but sometimes it doesn't. On Wednesday, however, it did, as the union agreed to remove picket lines for Lepage's appearances, given the "unique presence" of his theatre company Ex Machina, as the union declared in a statement which was read before the performance.
Lepage was not initially scheduled to be here for this. Having just opened The Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, he was not available, so busy Quebec actor Yves Jacques (Laurence Anyways) would play the part. But last month, Jacques landed a big part in a feature film, Grace of Monaco, which required him to be in France this week. Lepage agreed to step in halfway through the run – despite his hectic schedule that comes with being one of the world's most in-demand theatre artists.
"Alignment of the stars" was how Michael Boucher, Director of Cultural Programs at SFU Woodward's, put it in the title of his program message. "To have both actors performing in this Vancouver run is a dream come true."
But what seemed like fantastic news was soon eclipsed by a labour dispute. The CUPE local representing support workers escalated its job action against Simon Fraser University, after two years without a contract. Performances last Saturday and Sunday at the SFU Woodward's campus were cancelled, forcing the box office to scramble and throwing ticket holders into a tizzy of confusion.
"They called me probably four times this week," said Jane Sanden, a ticket-holder who was supposed to see the show last Saturday. It was ultimately cancelled. "They said you can switch your tickets to Wednesday, but there might not be a show. So it was a bit of a gamble."
A big gamble, because CUPE had earlier announced an "all-out, all-campus" withdrawal of services for Wednesday.
(In the midst of all this, the partnering PuSh Festival offered a discount on tickets for the Wednesday night performance, with the unfortunate online promo code "crosstheline" – which coincidentally is PuSh's catch-phrase for 2013 .)
On Tuesday, however, the union announced that it would allow all of the remaining shows to go ahead, even Wednesday's, when picket lines were to be set up all day.
Still, some would-be attendees remained unsure.
"I would have loved to have seen the show as it was, but particularly with Robert Lepage playing his original role. It's a little exceptional, and you're not going to get an opportunity to see that very often," says Rob Maguire, a Vancouver-based arts marketing consultant. "But there's no way I would cross a picket line to go see a theatrical production … and in the spirit of solidarity with the union, I guess I want to minimize the amount of time spent on that campus while they're engaged in that negotiation."
On Wednesday night, Boucher stood in the lobby, greeting the who's-who of the local arts communitythat came out for the event. Boucher – who had worked on bringing the show here for about two years – wouldn't speak about the labour disruption, but he looked both tense and relieved, if that is possible.
Outside, Ex Machina's associate producer explained how negotiators managed to save the rest of the run. "We really wanted to stop the bleeding and not have this degenerate further, so we've come to a very pleasant agreement with CUPE," said Menno Plukker, who flew to Vancouver on Sunday to deal with the labour situation. "It would have been a disaster if we would have had to cancel all the performances of the run."
Lepage would not grant an interview; between the labour situation and the need to re-learn the demanding parts (French and English) on short notice, "it's been insane," explained Plukker.
Before the performance began, Plukker read a prepared statement to the packed house, as per the agreement with CUPE, explaining why picket lines have been set up, and why the union local agreed to take them down at the SFU Woodward's campus on Wednesday. "In light of the unique presence of the Ex Machina theatre company, the union has allowed the removal of picket lines on this campus as to not interfere with its performance and the impact it would have had." (Cue very warm applause.)
All the outside drama was quickly forgotten as the audience was drawn into Lepage's acclaimed take on childhood wonderment amid the Soviet-American space race, and adult disappointment as reality sets in. The two-hour-and-15-minute, one-man show begins two weeks after the death of the mother of two men – the central character Philippe, a lonely failed academic who pays the bills with his telemarketing job, but is fascinated by the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, and his younger brother André, a TV weatherman.
The Far Side of the Moon was first performed in 2000 in Quebec City, and was staged at the Vancouver Playhouse in 2002. According to the program notes, the piece is never remounted but instead recreated, with script and staging in perpetual motion.
To have Lepage return to the role , with all he has accomplished in the past decade – most famously his RingCycle at the Metropolitan Opera – was an important cultural moment for this city, especially after it came dangerously close to not happening.
As the play demonstrates, there are two sides to everything – to the moon, a boyhood bedroom, the Plains of Abraham, a woman's life (the reading of Émile Nelligan's poem Before two portraits of my mother felt particularly poignant on the 69th birthday of Both Sides Now songstress Joni Mitchell).
There are two sides to the drama that has been unfolding off-stage as well. Lepage's work would suggest that it is important to contemplate them both.