It is seldom that you get to see a master actor, and a master creator, at the top of his or her form. Robert Lepage’s The Andersen Project at the Barbican is one such show. If you have to borrow the cash, or sleep with someone to get a ticket, do it.
You could write a summary that would make the plot sound like a bad Victorian novel. This account of Frederic, the Canadian pop lyricist brought to Paris to write a libretto inspired by one of the darker fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson for a European “co-operative” project right out of the horror files of the Telegraph, is, however, instead a deeply human story that never strikes a false note.
There are plenty of laughs, with a rapid-fire string of European and Atlantic arts in-jokes that almost, but not quite, descend to a stand-up routine. You are, however, always laughing with Lepage, never at him. On the wilder artistic avant garde: “what makes the English furious makes the French delirious”.
This is a one-man show, in the sense that Lepage plays not only the would-be librettist, seeking professional and personal validation, but also all of the other characters, from Arnaud, the conniving but troubled administrator of the Paris Opera, to the Dryad of Anderson’s tale. Yet there’s a long list of technical credits, from the puppeteer who produces a wonderfully believable mutt out of thin air to the “horse cart-maker”, and these are well deserved. Every aspect of The Andersen Project from the supra-realist video backdrops to the elaborate but designerista set, has been polished to almost eerie perfection.
Often in one-person productions, each individual character is seen in one dimension; it is the only way many actors can manage all those different roles. Yet Lepage’s characters are fully rounded. So the Opera director, that Machievellian master of arts politics, morphs quite naturally into a fond father reading a sad bedtime story (Anderson’s other contribution to the show, The Shadow) to a beloved daughter, a daughter he fears he is about to lose, along with his wife.
I did initially doubt Lepage’s Dryad – she seemed too stiff, too thick, yet when you think about it, even an ethereal being who has spent her life cramped within one small walnut tree is going to move awkwardly, slowly, when suddenly unleashed for one magic day on the streets of Paris and amidst the World Fair of 1855 that inspired Andersen.
This is a production like a matrioshka doll; both character and themes are exposed by the delicate peeling of fine layers. Each small action and omission will come to have meaning; each betrayal, each lie, each Fall will claim its price in time. Even an apparent joke, such as the rope that features ridiculously in a solemn commentary in the museum that commemorates Denmark’s greatest national figure, turns out to have far more significance than any in the audience might have imagined.
The production continues until February 18. Links: The Barbican production page; Lepage’s own description of the show’s development; other views of this production – the Telegraph, the Evening Standard.