The Dragon's Trilogy

The Events Centre, Newtown, Wellington

11/03/2006 - 18/03/2006

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details

by Marie Brassard, Jean Casault, Lorraine Côté, Marie Gignac, Robert Lepage, Marie Michaud
directed by Robert Lepage

Ex Machina [Canada]

In an empty parking lot, an imaginary Orient is conjured from the minds of 12-year olds Francoise and Jeanne; a China made of myth and miscellaneous rubbish, Tao, Mah Jong and Chinese laundries

A spawling epic that spans 75 years and seven time zones …

Theatre ,

5 hrs 25 mins, incl. 3 intervals

Nearly perfect

Review by Matthew Wagner 19th Mar 2006

It is not perfect theatre, but at times it comes so close to perfection that you care about little else.


Ex Machina’s The Dragon’s Trilogy traces the real and imagined encounter that the West – more specifically, Canada – had with Asia in the 20th century.  Lepage constructs this encounter in three stages:  Spring (meeting and growth); Autumn (crisis, change, and death), and Winter (peace and conclusion). 


He sets his world in a parking lot, where all the worlds we visit over this epic piece – Quebec City, Toronto, Vancouver, Hong Kong, London, Hiroshima – can be created out of the base materials of the earth and the theatre.  A large, rectangular gravel pit forms the main playing space, with the audience seated on either of its long sides.  At one end, the interior of a house, with bed, table, and cupboard, is established.  At the other end, a small hut stands, serving as doorway, or parking lot attendant’s booth, or souvenir stand.  Above this hut is a raised platform, and Lepage uses both the roof of the hut and the platform above it for playing spaces.  The actors use their own bodies, and in particular their blocking patterns, before anything else to establish location, mood, and activity. 


The stories that are told in this fashion, and within this vast, ever-changing world, though, are minute, individual, immediate, and human.  Covering over 50 years and three generations, we follow the lives that orbit around two key characters – Francoise and Jeanne.  We meet them first in the 1930s, as 12-year-old best friends, and we watch as they grow, marry (Jeanne against her will), and see their own children grow to adulthood.  Around and through the stories of these two Quebecois women run various and constant threads of China and Japan: they grow up in Quebec City’s Chinatown, and Jeanne’s forced marriage (and subsequent move to Toronto) is to Lee Wong, the son of the aging owner of the local Chinese laundry.  Lee raises Jeanne’s daughter as his own, despite the girl’s bright red hair, a constant reminder of his unending status as an outsider, even in his own family. 


On a somewhat parallel trajectory, we see a Geisha abandoned (Butterfly-like) in the early stages of WWII by her American soldier.  Over the course of the play, we watch her daughter become a model in Japan, mourn her mother’s earlier death in the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, and bury her desire (which was also her mother’s desire) to find her father.  In the final act of the play, Francoise’s son (an artist) meets, and loves, the granddaughter of this Geisha (also an artist), setting up another conduit between East and West.


It is, to be fair, this final act of the play that was least satisfying – we seem to undergo, in the closing scenes, a shift away from both the evocative imagery and the captivating story telling that marked the earlier acts.  We move instead toward something of a treatise on art itself, and the budding relationship between the two artists becomes, partly because of that shift, the least interesting relationship of the play.


That notwithstanding, Lepage creates some of the most striking, compelling, downright, make-you-speechless, knock-you-out moments of pure theatre that I’ve seen.  The pinnacle of The Dragon’s Trilogy, in this respect, is his depiction of unspeakable trauma.  This is a scene of the blitzkrieg, of child-birth, of the holocaust, of the Hiroshima bomb, and of lost love all at once, and Lepage creates it with shoes, ice skates, and gravel.  He builds the scene perfectly, and patiently; allowing a skater’s waltz to merge with a man (Lee) trying to keep his house in order.  His attempts take the form of lining up pairs of shoes, and the skaters – who had been circling the stage – turn into marchers, who then into storm troopers who traverse the set, first carelessly brushing past the shoes that Lee keeps rearranging, then, finally, as the lights and music swell, smashing and destroying them.  


That Lepage can imagine such a scene is one thing to be thankful for; that his actors can pull it off flawlessly is another.  And that Ex Machina doesn’t rest on it as one great moment, but weaves it in with the remainder of the performance, marks them as real masters of their craft.   But then, such is Lepage’s theatre – a theatre that takes its time (thankfully!), a theatre of layering – times, spaces, people, languages, even theatrical styles (the naturalistic and the abstract) all flow in and out of one another like oil and water: insoluble (and sometimes incongruent) liquids, but both liquids nonetheless, both sharing certain properties, both irreversibly altered by their mixing.   


In the end, whatever problems might exist with the performance, this is highly developed, professional theatre at its best: theatre that is made by the creative, passionate, and controlled chemical reaction of words, bodies, and objects in space.  It was, in a phrase, nearly perfect.


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Memorable theatre

Review by Lynn Freeman 15th Mar 2006

Canadian genius Robert Lepage knows exactly how to stage epics that look gorgeous, have a heart and a strong storyline. The Dragon’s Trilogy weighed in at five and a half hours in its revised and trimmed down form, but it’s still too long. We follow three generations of characters in three different cities in a story that interlaces love, friendship, the ruthlessness of war, race relations and assimilation, communication and prejudice.

The committed cast of eight, who in their time on stage play many roles, are an ensemble in the true sense of the word and are an absolute pleasure to watch. The simplest of sets uses concrete and gravel to create everything from a Zen garden to installation art to a parking lot. The Dragon’s Trilogy isn’t as strong visually or emotionally as The Seven Streams of the River Ota, nor is it as long, but it’s still a memorable piece of theatre.


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Miracles of invention

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 13th Mar 2006

Robert Lepage has been described as a maker of romantic theatre for the wired world and in The Dragons’ Trilogy, which made his reputation as a world class director when he was only 27 back in 1985, you can see why this description is so apt.

Lepage and his company take a leisurely four hours of stage time to tell this novel-like family saga that covers 75 years of the friendship between two Quebecois cousins, Jeanne and Francoise. Jeanne’s life is marked by tragedy: a love affair ruined by her alcoholic father, an unfortunate marriage to a Chinese man, a physically and mentally disabled daughter.

The ebullient Francoise finds a husband after the Second World War and bears him a son who eventually finds a much happier East-West romance with a beautiful Japanese-Canadian artist.

There are subplots that intrigue as well: a Mr Crawford, an Englishman, born in Hong Kong, who sets up a shoe shop in Quebec, and ends up a drug addict in a wheel chair; a Madam Butterfly who bears the child of an American sailor and dies in Hiroshima.

There are diversions too such as the long comic scene of Francoise buying duty free presents while a French-speaking Canadian airline pilot tries to get her to talk in English for him to the attractive saleswoman, who later meets up with Francoise’s son.

However, it’s not the stories that are told in English, French and Mandarin that hold the attention so much as the immaculate manner in which they are presented. Performed on a large rectangular pit full of grit and decorated with only a street lamp and a small hut at one end which is backed by a huge screen, one waits for the next miracle of invention to further the tales told in The Dragons’ Trilogy.

Only once does the action on stage disappoint (a heavy-handed sexual symbol with ropes), but for the rest miracles occur regularly. The hut becomes an x-ray machine, a duty-free shop, and a Chinese laundry, while shoes that have been neatly arranged about the stage are trampled into the grit by the armies of World War Two in an unforgettable image of the indifference of war.

Hands beating out a rhythm on an oil drum become a poker game, the voice-over of a touch-typing course counterpoints a diagnosis of breast cancer, and two skaters encircle the stage to the Skaters’ Waltz as the armies kill the civilians are further examples of the brilliance of this superb production.

The appallingly uncomfortable Events Centre seats could not spoil this evening of theatrical splendour and enchantment. Even the usual coughers were silent throughout such was the commitment given by the audience to this search for a synthesis of opposites expressed so longingly in the Kurt Weill song, Youkali, that Francoise sings at a wartime concert.


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Hearts and minds effortlessly engaged

Review by John Smythe 12th Mar 2006

Twenty one years ago six actor/writer/devisers (see above), employed by a theatre company in Quebec City called the Théâtre Repère, gathered to play with the idea of Chinatowns in Canada. The three Mah Jong dragons – Green (springtime, water), Red (earth, fire) and White (autumn, air) – inspired the title for the initial 90-minute version of The Dragons’ Trilogy. Further work saw the show double in length to an hour per dragon. Then, in 1987, a six-hour version achieved international fame. The quiet genius of Robert Lepage has thrilled audiences around the world ever since. Currently he is the artistic director of Ex Machina, which has toured some 16 productions since he co-founded it in 1994, and most recently he has performed his new one-man show, The Anderson Project (about Hans Christian Anderson) in Sydney and London (see

For New Zealand International Arts Festival-goers who saw The Seven Streams of the River Ota (2000) and/or The Far Side of the Moon in 2002, The Dragons’ Trilogy offers some idea of where and how it all started, although this version was revived and reworked in 2003, after a 14-year break. It is half-an-hour shorter now (my guess is the Mao Tse Tung content, for a start, has been reconstructed) and plays with an entrancing flow that effortlessly incorporates a range of simple staging and dramaturgical devices to serve its storytelling ends.

‘Play’ is the key. A rectangle of raked gravel, overlooked by a billboard at one end and a street lamp at the other, with a ticket booth that will serve many functions, is identified as part of a car park. Translated Chinese voices tell us it covers what used to be the Chinese neighbourhood.

Le Dragon Vert, set in Quebec City, finds two girls, Jeanne and Françoise, at play as if in a sand pit, using shoe boxes to recreate their part of town as it was in 1910. Jeanne is the motherless daughter of Morin, a drunken barber who will destroy her chances of happiness with a delivery boy, Charles Bédard, while Françoise dreams of going to London to marry a prince and become Queen of England. They are mindlessly racist towards old Mr Wong who runs the laundry and forms a friendship with English shoe salesman William S. Crawford, born in Hong Kong, who proceeds to get turned on to opium and run a poker game in the basement. But ‘fortune’ takes over in the form of old Wong’s son Lee, whose ruthless exploitation of hapless Morin’s weakness sees him virtually win Jeanne (pregnant by Charles) in a poker game …

Le Dragon Rouge Part I finds pregnant Jeanne and Lee in Toronto where Françoise – who has a fiancé in the navy – pursues an army career, and William sets up a shoe shop. Jeanne works there after her daughter Stella is born, to be looked after by stocking-faced Chinese aunties whose minds and daily activities remain steeped in old China. Meanwhile in Tokyo a naval officer (not Françoise’s fiancé) impregnates a Geisha but doesn’t want to know. A secret visit from Charles precipitates a tantrum in Stella, when he leaves. She gets sick, turns out to have meningitis … Françoise, who has been entertaining the troops in London, goes skating with her fiancée until that gives way to marching. The utter devastation of war is vividly evoked through the stomped-on crunch of gravel and the collateral damage done to neatly-paired shoes.

Le Dragon Rouge Part II starts with the tenth anniversary of Hiroshima (6 August 1955). Jeanne tunes into the old Chinese proverb that listening to the stones growing will bring you peace, until she finds a lump growing in her breast. The irony is that radiation is still killing people in Japan while it has now become the new hope for treating cancer. Françoise, upwardly mobile with her businessman husband back in Quebec City, is learning to type (the instructing voice is an ingenious narrative device) and trying to get pregnant. The geisha’s daughter – her mother was vaporised in Hiroshima – is a swimsuit model in Toronto. A Catholic nun, back from persecution and internment in Mao’s culturally revolutionised China, helps the now adult but retarded Stella get placed into an institution, which alienates Lee. A brief encounter with Charles in QC only makes matters worse for Jean back in Toronto … The bleak ending to this part heralds the longest interval break (snack food an drink is available or bring your own).

Le Dragon Blanc is set in 1980s Vancouver where the car park booth is now an airport gift kiosk, run by aspiring artist Yukali, the swimsuit model’s daughter (the geisha’s grand daughter). She has to fend off the unwanted attentions of an Air France pilot while helping an ageing Françoise find a gift for Stella as her anxious son Pierre (an installation artist and gallery owner) tries to get her off to QC. He also encounters a wheelchair-bound William, en-route to a film festival where he is the subject of a documentary about geriatric drug addicts. Stella loves the gift but it leads to her meeting a terrible end …

Lepage and co tempt fate by having William judge the film he was in "a feeble effort" in which "they play with form because they have nothing to say." They then explore the elusive nature of when Yukali brings her three dragon paintings to Pierre. He is trying to install ‘the universe’ in his gallery space while she wants to bring what’s inside her out, into the light, by trying to "make the light come out of the paper". Inspired by each other, they make love in a Zen garden. Two huge frayed ropes symbolise the play’s attempts to draw all the divergent story strands back together. A Chinese dragon levitates proceedings, a flaming rickshaw takes William back to Hong Kong – where, as the pilot has just told us, the sun sets as it rises over Vancouver … And so we return to the original car park.

Thus The Dragon’s Trilogy digs beneath the blandest of surfaces to excavate a sprawling saga in four languages that spans three generations and the Canadian continent while reaching westward to ‘the East’, eastward to Europe and inward to our hearts and minds. The eight performers – Normand Bissonnette, Sylvie Cantin, Jean Antoine Charest, Simone Chartrand, Tony Guilfoyle, Eric Leblanc, Veronika Makdissi-Warren and Emily Shelton – claim their roles as if they had originated them, the text and the ingenious production elements that conspire to engage our interest with the deceptive ease of true art.

As with all Lepage works, it is an extraordinary and unique experience that richly rewards our greater-than-usual investment in time, money and trust.


Danny April 1st, 2006

God aren't you over the festival yet? Only a couple of weeks to go and you should get a medal for attending and having the energy to comment on all the tired old touring shows that keep popping their heads up at Festival Circuits all over the world. I am going to Bob Page's Dragon Trilogy believe it or not, can hardly wait, my comp is burning a hole in my pocket. At least this one is only 5 and a half hours as opposed to his last cricket match. I have gone into training for it by trying to sit through the entire length of King Kong but still haven't been able to manage my way past the first two hours, so I nearly got half way. I'm hoping Robert's inspired theatrical tedium will keep me distracted enough. (Yet another "Devised piece" and I thought films underrated writers.) Yours in admiration at your stamina and insane enthusiasm

martyn roberts April 1st, 2006

Lovely history and plot summary of the show. Can we have some of your scathing critique in the same vein as you rip into the others from time to time? Have another go at reviewing this show as I'm sure it has more to hide than just a plot summary? surely? (the medal for endurance under cultural fire must go to you) cheers marty

John Smythe April 1st, 2006

Fair comment, Marty. Somehow I felt the only way to capture to scope of this show was to summarise it - as part of the process of attempting to pin down why it is so compelling. It's the story that holds us and the way it's told that we admire.

Simon April 1st, 2006

Couldn't agree more. I could find nothing negative to say about the experience of being in the audience at this production. Engrossing, compelling, subtle, layered, complex... These words are all clichés and feel inadequate to summarise my reaction to the event.

Danny April 1st, 2006

OK here goes. After John called me a heretic for daring to criticise 7 streams of the river Ota he seemed surprised to see me at the opening night of Dragon Trilogy. I very rarely turn down a comp especially an expensive one. Anyway I really enjoyed my self and thought the Dragon trilogy was one of the best things I saw at the festival. I don't know maybe I have changed but I found real people in the dragon Trilogy that i identified with. From Mr Crawford the geriatric junkie to Bernedene (I hope that's approximately right I didn't get a free programme) well nearly all of them but if you asked me to remember a character from 7 streams I would be hard pressed to recall a name let alone a line or two. Dragon Trilogy was genuinely moving and it was nearly always inventive and beautifully produced. It doesn't mean i have lost my marbles though. the ending was too long, it could have done away with the repeated scene with the pilot and the girl in the souvenir stall as well as the Japanese rope genitalia trick which reminded me of a Top Town competition. I wanted to slap the nun but that has more to say about me than the character or the actor playing it and when she finally got disrobed and reverted into the autistic daughter I must say i was relieved. I could also see a lot of Le Pages influences on some of the fantastic New Zealand Plays I have seen lately especially Peninsula which I hope comes to Wellington. I have heard Le Pages "master Class" was pretty good and would have loved to ask him if owing to the success of Dragon trilogy and 7 Streams has he got any plans to turn them into a sit com? cheers Danny

John Smythe April 1st, 2006

Thanks Danny I heartily agree regarding PENINSULA and I have no idea if/when it is coming to Wellington. I do know Downstage wanted it but was turned down because of the lack of soundproofing. That may seem precious but Chris Ward's sound-scape is a true work of art and I don't blame him for not wanting sirens and boy-racers to intrude on it.

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