But the sexual harassment scandals that have wracked the entertainment industry since the Hollywood mogul’s fall have forced the Quebecois master theatre maker to rethink how he works.
The fact that he was also rehearsing a play, “Quills”, inspired by the one of the most notorious sexual predators in history — the Marquis de Sade, after whom the word “sadism” was coined — added further fuel for thought.
Which is how Lepage found himself recently telling a actress during rehearsals, “‘Listen, if I do something inappropriate, tell me.”
When Lepage first staged his French-language adaptation of the American Doug Wright’s play inspired by the libertine de Sade’s writings in 2016, he had no such hang-ups.
But two years later as he revives the production he created with Jean-Pierre Cloutier at the Theatre de la Colline in Paris, “there are now issues that were not there before”, he said.
All the more so because Lepage is not just co-directing the play, he is also acting in it, and having to play out a sex scene with an actress where they are both naked on a cross.
– Actors are ‘very vulnerable’ –
“When we staged the play in 2016 we never thought about that,” Lepage told AFP. “Now, of course, we have become more sensitive to this.”
“Quills” has taken on “very different connotations with with all that has happened recently and with #MeToo,” he insisted.
“We are very often naked in the rehearsal room, sometimes kissing, so these are very intimate situations where people are very vulnerable,” said the director, who is known for his highly visual style.
“We don’t know if the other person is at ease or not. We have to ask ourselves how far we can go, and when a gesture becomes gratuitous,” said Lepage, who came out as gay in his teens.
“And so imagine in this context we introduce a predator,” in this case, the Marquis de Sade, said Lepage.
“My real plume is between my thighs,” the aristocratic philosopher and novelist once wrote.
The violent and pornographic nature of his work were mirrored in his private life, where he tied up, drugged, whipped and raped a number of his servants and other women, claiming the ideal life should be lived unrestrained by morality.
– ‘Deprived and licentious’ –
He was locked up by the ancien regime before the French Revolution — and indeed was in the Bastille the day it was stormed. He also later fell foul of the revolutionaries and Napoleon when he came to power.
His ideas about extreme freedom that do away all inhibiting conventions were a threat to both church and state.
“Quills” is an imaginary recreation of the marquis’ last days in the Charenton asylum near Paris, where he continued to write in secret his “depraved”, “licentious” and “libidinous” texts despite the attempts of the authorities to “purify (him) from the stink of indecency”.
Lepage believes the play, written in 1995 and later adapted into film starring Geoffrey Rush as de Sade alongside Kate Winslet, is more relevant than ever.
Ironically, Rush now faces allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” towards an actress during a production of “King Lear” in his native Australia.
“Artists always try to make something that is going to be relevant and up-to-the-minute,” said Lepage, “but they never thought it would be more newsworthy than they wished.”