The Ustinov, under artistic director, Laurence Boswell, continues its mission to bring us overlooked, forgotten or otherwise neglected plays from near and far. Michel Tremblay’s 1971 play was originally set in Francophone Quebec and concerns a working-class family living in Montreal at that time.
The translator has found an analogue for a Catholic, French-Canadian under-class going through an identity crisis, in an Irish Republic where vaginas were – depending on which way one faced – either inviolable holy sites or sink-holes of demonic depravity luring the righteous into a spiral of unpardonable sin.
Any writer consenting to a translation of their work by another writer must be prepared for and open to losses and gains. The loss for Tremblay, one suspects, is that sense of standard bearing for the kind of renascent identity which can form around a linguistic heritage deemed to be under threat. The gain is new life in foreign, yet sociologically familiar, territory. Michael West gives Tremblay’s characters that easy familiarity with a flexible prose that trumps poetry at every turn in its depiction of character and emotion, class and milieu, which we find in Irish writing of the first order.
The production would seem to owe more to Beckett than Brecht in that it sets about paring down to a minimum what we like to call the ‘action’ of the play. The audience is treated to a row of four chairs, which austerity is barely relieved by the odd prop – a bottle of stout here, a picture of ‘our Lord’ there. The actors, with hardly a sideways glance, sit facing out front, acting to the back of the auditorium. Thus denied the use of their bodies and one another, the actors (Mr. Boswell has assembled a crack team) set about reliving a decade old tragedy of sexual frustration, marital rape, religious orthodoxy and (hinted at) murder, suicide and infanticide.
Carmen (Caoilfhionn Dunne) a country and western singer, returns home to pick over the details leading up to her parents’ death with her devout, repressed sister, Mandy (Amy McAllister). The father, Liam (Paul Loughran) is trapped in a soul-destroying, mechanical job by the need to provide for his family. His wife, Mary-Louise (Catriona Ni Mhurchu) has born him two daughters and a younger son, each of whom she suggests are the result of marital rape. She makes no bones about the repugnance she feels for sexual congress and the repulsive nature of her husband’s (largely drunken) advances. The parents sit at each end of the row of chairs, the opposing wings of the warring family. The dialogue is mainly concerned with the picking off of old scabs and the irritating of exposed and unhealed emotional wounds. It all ends in an apparently pre-meditated car crash, which claims the lives of the two parents and the infant son.
The forty year-old play has lost none of its emotional impact thanks to some fine acting and surgical directing of what is justifiably a noted example of French-Canadian theatre. ★★★☆☆ Graham Wyles 29th March 2016