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Review: The Far Side of the Moon by Robert Lepage/Ex Machina

★★★★☆ (Attended 2/11/19, Matinee)
A deeply affecting reflection on loneliness, sibling rivalry, and the little triumphs that keep us going, buoyed by a masterful performance from Yves Jacques and Robert Lepage’s ingenious theatrical magic. 

The far side of the moon, sometimes known as the dark side of the moon, refers to the side of the moon facing away from Earth, unseen and unnoticed in comparison to its other side. But what could that possibly have to do with Canadian theatre master Robert Lepage’s work of the same name, which follows two brothers attempting to deal with the death of their mother? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Interpreting its title as referring to those who have been left behind, lacking exposure and lovee, The Far Side of the Moon is an ambitious romp traversing time and space, using clever theatrical technology, puppetry, to explore the universal themes of loneliness and unbelonging in the world as a pair of brothers navigate their past and sibling rivalry while dealing with the death of their mother. Between the two brothers, our story invariably focuses on Philippe – the older, introverted philosopher. Philippe struggles to get recognised for his research in the hopes of some kind of acknowledgement, holding onto a heavy load of self-doubt and low self-esteem when compared to his younger, extroverted brother André, seen by the entire country almost daily as a TV weatherman.

While André plays the responsible sibling clearing out their late mother’s belongings, Philippe instead spirals into an inescapable well of despair as we learn of his rather unremarkable life – mistaken as the younger brother for not having achieved as much as  André, a childhood of jealousy so intense it led to temporary blindness in one eye, and a string of failures that quite simply paints him as a rather pathetic character. On weekends, he works as a telemarketer, and one of the most affecting scenes of all sees him call up an old flame by chance, with Philippe expressing a combination of regret and anger while teetering on the edge of a breakdown. In the light of André’s confidence and success, Jacques is comparatively in far worse shape, and we sympathise for his plight, having tried all his life to achieve something, anything, only to remain overshadowed.

At the heart of this impressive one-man show is Canadian actor Yves Jacques, who showcases a masterclass in acting over the 2 hour duration. As Philippe, there is a heaviness to his demeanour that suggests a man on the verge of defeat, holding on to a life where the final straw could break him at any moment. As André, Jacques slaps on a goatee and moves with a greater youth that seems to de-age him, a man who stands up straight, commanding and knowing exactly what he wants with each line. Jacques’ performance is so adept at differentiating each character that it feels as if the two brothers are practically played by different actors.

On a more meta note, the fact that Jacques is the only actor onstage at any one point of time only serves to drive home the incredible solitude and loneliness that characterises PhilippeThroughout the play, the two brothers never physically encounter each other, connected only by their shared past and communicating via phone calls. Lepage’s script is darkly comic, combining a mix of situational irony and little disasters that only make us pity Philippe all the more for his plain bad luck. There is a richness in each anecdote delivered, emphasising atmosphere, mood and an aching nostalgia for better days, profoundly juxtaposed against the dark present (at one point even hinting that Philippe may be close enough to the edge to contemplate suicide). We watch Philippe work through his difficult past and even more depressing present, often feeling an almost claustrophobic pressure closing in on him each time, as if the weight of life itself is crushing him slowly.

As its title also suggests, Lepage has employed an overarching space theme throughout The Far Side of the Moon. The play’s plot loosely follows the development of the USA/USSR space race, paralleling the changing relationship between the two countries with that of the brothers. Much like how space continues to remain a vast mystery, Lepage has also taken the liberty to intersperse realist scenes with more fantastical ones – in the opening scene alone, a port hole initially appears to be a washing machine, but then pulls Philippe through into outer space, reflecting the lack of gravity anchoring his life he feels internally. Philippe’s childhood hero is Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, and the Russians’ loss of the space race mirrors that of his own failures, close but not good enough to achieving something, anything to give meaning to his existence. The vastness of space simultaneously represents both possibility and emptiness, and the drifting life so many of us feel at times, locked into society’s rat race and questioning the value of our achievements in a world that feels as if nothing is ever good enough.

Screenshot 2019-05-08 at 8.19.56 PM

All of this is brought to life by the brilliant tech crew working tirelessly backstage and achieve Lepage’s incredible vision. The set design is one of the most original ones we’ve seen in a while, characterised by a gigantic, prismatic structure that is manually operated to transform into a wall of mirrors, an overhead of lights, or even a lonely hotel bartop counter. A set of sliding doors becomes an elevator, while a very sturdy ironing board transforms into various gym machines, and even a bicycle midway through. Pierre Robitaille and Sylvie Courbron’s pint-sized astronaut puppets ‘float’ outside windows, plant flags into the moon, or even become a young version of Philippe who dances with his mother (also played by Jacques). Laurie Anderson’s music is sparingly used, with much of the play featuring only Jacques’ voice and silence, but when it is strategically played, evokes a twinge of emotion in our hearts. The world of The Far Side of the Moon is an unusual one, but so effective in bringing out this whimsy by activating the audience’s imagination with only stage trickery and subtle lighting and projection that allows us to believe fully in each scene.

Yet, amidst the pessimism and cold dark nature of space, as much as Philippe’s life seems to be hurtling towards a fiery collision, we end The Far Side of the Moon on a ray of hope. Throughout the show, we see him cobbling together a simple video message to extraterrestrials, attempting to explain what life on Earth is like to aliens via rocks and simple speeches, sincere and genuine in each clip. This eventually proves to be the key to turning things around, and it is suggested that reconciliation between the brothers and a better future does lie ahead after all. In its final scene, Philippe may remain untethered as he ‘floats’ in a zero gravity world, but even then, he is no longer sucked into a vortex, learning to deal with his new reality, and we are left with the belief that someday, we too can reach the moon, the stars and everything that lies beyond them.

Photo Credit: David Leclerc

The Far Side of the Moon played at the Esplanade Theatre on 1st and 2nd November 2019.

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