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Robert Lepage’s The Far Side of the Moon: An Interview with Performer Yves Jacques

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Yves Jacques. Photo Credit:  Pierre Dury

If you do a cursory Google search on Yves Jacques, you’ll find that it’s surprisingly hard to find much information about the 63-year old Canadian actor’s personal life, besides a Wikipedia article or IMDB entry that glosses over a brief description of his achievements, and a long, long list of film and theatre credits over his 40-something year career. A man whose online presence is defined by his career, with no social media presence, it’s a rare opportunity to get to meet Jacques himself, and really get to know this tour de force of a performer as he prepares to star in Québécois titan of theatre Robert Lepage’s The Far Side of the Moon at the Esplanade this week.

If it’s anyone set to take to the stage for this show, it has to be Jacques, a certified veteran in this one-man show, which he’s been performing in since 2001 for over 370 performances to date. “I was actually quite amazed when Lepage first approached me to play the role back then,” says Jacques. “I hadn’t seen the show at first, and when I did, I was quite blown away and told him ‘Well you can’t expect me to do that!’ He laughed and told me to come back and watch it again, this time from the backstage, and it actually turns out it’s much more doable than it looks.”

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Photo Credit: David Leclerc

The Far Side of the Moon is precisely the kind of play that provokes such wonder, putting together a keen combination of theatre tech, masterful acting, and a compelling narrative of two brothers coming to grips with the death of their mother, set against the epic backdrop of the space race between the Americans and the Russians. Jacques refers to this as a kind of ‘Lepage magic’ that has been developed over the years, and elaborates: “The Far Side of the Moon isn’t as reliant on tech as some of Lepage’s later work, like 887, but it’s still one of his more memorable pieces. As an actor, I’m never reliant on the tech, but at the same time, respect these devices as characters in themselves, and my co-stars in a sense. As much as I’m the only actor onstage, I’m also backed up by 10 wonderful crew members who help bring all this tech to life, from the puppets to a light cue, and they’re all committed to putting on a great show.”

Jacques has worked with Lepage on two major theatre shows – besides The Far Side of the Moon, he has also toured as the sole actor in Lepage’s Le Projet Andersen, more than enough evidence of Lepage’s trust in him as a performer. On his relationship with Lepage, Jacques explains how they’ve known each other way before The Far Side of the Moon, citing a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo as one of the first times they worked together. Says Jacques: “I was playing the Pope in the show, and Lepage asked me to play this emcee role in the show that wasn’t originally there, announcing scene and set changes. I imagine that he would have been the one to play that part, and maybe over the years, I’ve become a vessel or alter ego to Lepage in my role as an actor. He’s one of those directors who’s really nice, very confident and never judges you, someone who never wields his role as director for the sake of power, something I’ve experienced a fair bit from other directors that end up making a production really unpleasant.”

Having actually lived through the USA/USSR space race era, Jacques takes a moment to be wistful, recalling his youth and how the entire inter-country competition was like growing up. “I remember the Apollo missions and all this buzz about men going to the moon. I even remember watching Neil Armstrong taking that first step on the moon, watching it on television in the summer of ’69 near the Saint Lawrence river, in a summer house with my mother and father, when I was about 12,” he muses. “That’s a feeling I can’t shake till today, and I think even for younger audiences who never experienced those years first hand, there’s something inherently beautiful about that moment that transcends time and experience to understand protrayed in these scenes.”

Interestingly, in 2003, Jacques also starred in the film adaptation of The Far Side of the Moon, but this time, played only the two brothers, while the other characters were played by an entire cast of actors instead. Says Jacques: “I love how different both brothers are, and that feeling of playing both of these roles in a single show. I remember how when we were touring the show in Europe, and when I came out to take my final bow, sometimes, there’d be audience members who’d be scratching their head and wondering why there was only one actor bowing and where the other one playing the other brother was!”

“Another element of the play I love is the puppets,” Jacques continues. “I was never formally trained as a puppeteer, but i did use to make them as a kid, and my mother would even help craft clothes for them. There’s a scene where I play the mother and dance with one of the puppets, a tiny version of her son, but the one scene that I think is the most beautiful one is when a whole group of puppets comes to save my character and pulls him out of a plane, and they feel like living, breathing characters themselves!”

It’s quite fascinating that even at age 63, Jacques possesses a kind of spritely, youthful energy, something that no doubt helps him still perform the two hour show well time after time. “It doesn’t actually feel that different from performing it years ago,” he elaborates. “Although there’s this one big scene at the end where a character is floating in space, and it’s getting harder to do as time goes by. Everytime I’m going to do it, internally I think ‘oh no! Not again!’, and after about a week of performances, it’s always nice to go get a massage to help put my body at ease.”

Speaking about the Montreal theatre scene, Jacques perks up and expresses joy at how ripe the scene is with new works constantly coming up year after year, amidst a couple of repertory theatres, and the propogation of new theatre spaces, such as Lepage’s very own Le Diamant. “I’m currently working on creating new work with young people, especially at the Unicorn Theatre, and I love how they’re so great, so funny, and it almost feels like they understand me more than the older generation I worked with than when I was a young actor,” he enthuses. “They’re always getting me to do things I never thought I’d ever do myself!”

Besides The Far Side of the Moon, Jacques is currently also working on a new film, regarding the creator of the Montreal Botanical Garden, with strong ecological and conservation themes attached to it, set for release sometime in the future. If anything, his career is flourishing more than ever, yet, before us, is still this incredibly humble the entire time we speak to him, the rare person these days who remains an artist without letting his ego get the better of him. “My role is not here to promote myself,” he says. “I am an actor because I like the craft, and I enjoy playing characters who are not myself, and work with great directors. I love this role because the script is very well-written, and I never feel a need to stand out unless the character calls for it, and their necessity in telling the story.”

“There’s this thing that people say,” he concludes. “That it’s only after 50 performances of the same show that you really understand it and know how to play it. Often, we’re lucky if we even get the chance to play 25 performances of a show. So that’s why I’m so thankful to have had the chance to play The Far Side of the Moon over 370 times, to really understand the show, to work with Lepage, and present his show in an honest and fair way. Working with Lepage has really taught be how to be humble, and it’s really made me appreciate the opportunity working with him has given me to become the person I am today.”

The Far Side of the Moon plays at the Esplanade Theatre on 1st and 2nd November 2019. Tickets available from the Esplanade

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