JOYCE MCMILLAN on NEW WRITING FROM QUEBEC at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 22.11.14.
4 stars ****
SOMEWHERE IN QUEBEC, an elderly man – a once-brilliant academic and teacher called Edouard – is fading away, his mind gradually disintegrating as dementia takes hold. He belongs to the generation who, in the 1960’s, began to rebel against the dominance of English-speaking Canada, and who, in 1976, elected the nationalist Renee Levesque as Quebec premier; he says that his younger daughter was conceived on the night of that election, as he and his wife Madeline – and a few million other Quebecois – celebrated what seemed like a new age of freedom and self-determination. Now, though, that daughter is dead; and Edouard records a last Youtube message, arguing that Quebec itself – like him – is fading into history, having missed its moment, a generation ago.
This is Francois Archambault’s You Will Remember Me, one of the three plays from Theatre La Licorne in Montreal given powerful rehearsed readings at the Traverse this week as part of a new exchange between the two theatres, and between two very different cultures that nonetheless have a great deal in common. It’s not that the plays involved in the exchange often address questions of political history history as directly as Edouard does, in You Will Remembe Me. The four Scottish plays that visited in Montreal in September – and were given high-powered readings at La Licorne – included Morna Pearson’s 21st century Doric slasher-movie The Artist Man And The Mother Woman, and Douglas Maxwell’s A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity, a merry fantasy on class, age, gender, and obscene language. And the two other Quebecois plays performed at the Traverse this week – by terrific casts that included Meg Fraser, Benny Young, Cal MacAninch and Paul Thomas Hickey – ranged from the fierce, almost toxic chorus of right-wing 21st century urban rage exposed in the brilliant Billy (The Days Of Howling) by Fabien Cloutier, and a shudderingly weird study of a modern middle-class woman whose mind begins to play strange tricks after the apparent death of her child, in Catherine-Anne Toupin’s Right Here, Right Now.
Yet both La Licorne’s artistic director, Jean-Denis Leduc, and his associate Philippe Lambert, who directed the readings in Edinburgh this week, believe there is a huge rapport between the two cultures, which has made the Scottish-Quebecois cultural exchange an outstandingly rich one ever since the early 1980’s, when Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman began to translate the works of the great Quebecois playwright Michel Tremblay into Scots. “It’s about a way of working and writing that very much includes the audience, and that uses forms of language that brings the work very close to them,” says Lambert. “And It’s been wonderful working with the actors here this week, because the work has that quality of wtittiness and awareness, and engaging immediately with the audience, that we also see in Montreal.”
And 40 years after he founded La Licorne, Jean-Denis Leduc agrees. “We have had a long conversation with the Traverse,” he says, “and we have staged many Traverse plays, by David Greig, Stephen Greenhorn, Gregory Burke. And what I feel is that we are always on the same page, using the same direct kind of acting, which is right to the point – it’s physical, and emotional, from the heart. This is something we have in common, and after this first step in Montreal and here, we will continue this. We have to work out the details, of course – whether we move to an exchange of full productions, or something else – but I know that this relationship is full of possibilities. We want it to be stronger in future; and it will be stronger, I am sure of that.”