Qui suis je? Qui êtes vous? These are the questions asked over and over again by the narrator of le Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon’s three-dimensional performance of the old French fairy tale, La Belle et le Bête. The 90 minutes of this wonderful production throw us mesmerizingly into the conundrum stirred up by these questions.
What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be an artist? But perhaps the most profound question asked by the performance is: Who are we when we are exposed to and then intoxicated by love and intimacy? As we watch, across the 90 minutes of the production, the beautiful woman becomes the beast as she abandons the man who will is willing die for her, without her. At least, this is what this version of the text seems to be saying: it doesn’t matter what we wear, it doesn’t matter what we look like, it doesn’t matter what our history, all that matters is who we are when pulled into the maelstrom and impossibility of romantic love. For the belle, the intense love and the passion between her and her prince-bête is made “impossible”, because it is secret. They must always meet in secret because he lives in the shadow of the shame of his looks. Interestingly, for those of us in the audience of Lemieux and Pilon’s production, the so called beast is beautiful even before we see his face thanks to the richness and texture of his voice. Even before the young woman sees him, we are seduced by him. When she then leaves him behind in his prison-like fortress, we are disappointed by her rejection of the secret love affair.
If the lovers are inebriated by the power of their love, what makes the production seductive for the audience, dreamy almost, to the point where I felt as though I was carried away in a tightly woven narrative film, is the mise-en-scène. The work is billed as a veritable inter-medial event. A lot of contemporary theatre is a mixture of theatre, dance, with video images used in exciting and integral ways. It’s interesting to think of La Belle et la Bête side by side The Master and Margarita, if only because I have seen them in consecutive weeks. While McBurney uses the video images to policitize and extend the theatrical stage, Lemieux and Pilon use them to move us into the unreal world of the fairytale.
Many of the images used have the appearance of holograms, as well as highly defined digital and video images. There are only three flesh and blood actors in the production, while all the other characters – the young woman’s elder sisters, the beast as the prince charming, the white horse, as well as the sets — all appear in holograms and video images. The real bodied actors’ interaction with the images is extraordinary. I want to say it must be more difficult to make love to a hologram (as the belle does) than it is to do battle with a digital tiger in a lifeboat at sea. Although completely different in its construction and movement, like The Master and Margarita, the set here is entirely a projection of light.
The intent to create “four dimensional art” through virtual sounds and images could so easily have been very tacky or sensational. But the movement in and out of reality and the fairytale, the girl’s travelling the distance between her studio and her lover’s palace, the passages in and out of memory, dream, the past and into the present were all skillfully done. As can be seen in among the scenes captured here, the most exciting scenes are those in which passions run high, the natural elements conspire to become expressions of the intensity between the lovers, and the audience becomes embroiled in the turmoil. For example, there is one scene in which she gets caught in the rain and the rain literally overtakes the auditorium as it is projected in all its cacophony in light, together with the dramatic score.
And lastly, one very subtle aspect of the piece that I enjoyed —especially because of its affinity to silent cinema from the 1920s and 1930s— is that, like the fairytale in its most lucid form, Lemieux and Pilon’s La Belle et la Bête is about representation. The piece is about having one’s portrait painted, as the belle’s first reaction on seeing the beast’s face is to want to paint it. The beast agrees, but only in return for her own portrait. The struggle between them, as well as their love affair is set in motion by this desire to paint and to own a portrait of the other. Of course, portraiture is that classical genre that echoes the same question: who am I, who are you, how do I represent myself, and what will happen once I give my image to you. Powerful stuff.
Images courtesy Victor Pilon