Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

les belles-soeurs

Les Belles-Soeurs At The Stratford Festival

Les Belles-Soeurs (the Sisters-in-Law) by the francophone Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay holds an iconic position in Canadian theatre history. It is receiving a thought provoking revival under the enthusiastic if occasionally over-emphatic direction of Esther Jun.

The year is 1965 in the working class east end of Montreal and Germaine Lauzon (Lucy Peacock) has won a million Gold Star stamps and has invited friends and family to a stamp-licking party to paste all those stamps into booklets which can then be traded in for a tempting array of household luxuries. For those too young to remember the heyday of this kind of loyalty program, there’s Wikipedia.

And so begins a parade of colorful working-class Quebec types, all women, fifteen in all. There’s Germaine’s sister, Rose Ouimet (Seana McKenna) and her sister-in-law Thérèse Dubuc (Irene Poole), who arrives with her elderly, seemingly demented mother-in-law (Diana Leblanc). A bitter and openly envious neighbor, Marie-Ange (Shannon Taylor) comes to sneer.

There are others of the elder generation, too numerous to mention in a short review. The younger crowd is represented by Germaine’s daughter Linda (Ijeoma Emesowum) and her friends Lise (Marissa Orjalo) and Ginette (Tara Sky). A surprise addition is Germaine’s youngest sister Pierrette (Allison Edwards-Crewe), who has been estranged from the family since going to work in a nightclub.

Perhaps it’s because Germaine can’t shut up about all the wondrous things she’s going to cram into her house when she starts redeeming all those stamp-filled booklets, but as her guests chat about the shabby confines of their lives, little by slowly, starting with Marie-Ange, they begin stashing some of those stamps into their purses. Eventually, even the most rigidly strait-laced of them succumb to temptation until the thievery rises to farcical levels.

So much for plot. Les Belles-Soeurs is a searchingly satirical and surprisingly loving portrait of a milieu on the brink of transformation.

Michel Tremblay wrote Les Belles Soeurs in 1965, during the early days of what became known as the “Quiet Revolution.” During that time, the province of Quebec became more assertive in its French identity while throwing off the shackles of the Roman Catholic hierarchy that had kept many francophones under-educated and decidedly working class. Apparently, the Church feared that providing their flock the kind of education that would earn them better jobs would leave them prone to the many temptations of Anglo-Protestant Canada.

Les Belles-Soeurs was revolutionary and controversial in 1968 when it debuted. The mere fact that the play concerned working-class women talking about working class concerns was jarring. Not only were taboo subjects like abortion mooted but much of the banter was of a coarseness seldom heard on Quebec stages. (Jokes about nuns getting raped? Mon dieu!)

Les Belles-Soeurs was also the first play in Quebec to use “joual,” the distinctly Québécoise patois, which alas does not come across very strongly in the otherwise perfectly acceptable English translation by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco.

The stagecraft Tremblay employed in Les Belles-Soeurs must also have looked revolutionary in 1968. At times the entire cast speaks in unison directly to the audience and there is a wonderful reverie about the joys of Bingo that interrupts the naturalistic flow of the action.

Tremblay has also given most of the characters soliloquies in which they step out of the action and pour out their hearts, providing some of Stratford’s best actresses a chance to shine. Director Jun has clearly encouraged them to pull out all the stops. She even has some of them climb onto table tops for their moment in the spotlight.

And speaking of actresses who shine, seeing Les Belles-Soeurs would be worth it if only to see old pros Peacock and McKenna give pitch perfect performances. Trembley has created a very nice mother daughter dynamic between Germaine and Linda and Peacock and Emesowum pull it off beautifully. Irene Poole is appropriately frazzled as the caretaker for Diana Leblanc who is a perfect trouper as the demented Olivine Dubuc.

Shannon Taylor manages to look worn, drawn, and frumpy as Marie-Ange, something I would have thought impossible. She is fierce as she leads the ensemble in an extended bitching session about the humdrum lives they lead as virtual slaves to their husbands and kids. Among the younger set, Marissa Orjalo is touching as the knocked-up Lise, who is opting to terminate her pregnancy.

Among the soliloquizers, Akosua Amo-Adem scores with her account of clandestine nights out at a club, where for once she can let loose and have a little fun. Nice work, too, from Joella Crichton, who got a well-deserved round of applause with her monologue that consisted of a lengthy list of attendees at a birthday party, and Jennifer Villaverde, whose cri de coeur “IT’S LIKE LIVING IN A BARNYARD!” brought the house down.

Costume designer Michelle Bohn, who has roots in Montreal, does a terrific job of conjuring the period, and set designer Joanna Yu creates a suitably down market setting for the proceedings.

On the surface, Les Belles-Soeurs may seem dated, but it remains a remarkably powerful piece of theatre. Many of the issues it raises, despite progress made in terms of gender equality, remain contentious. The many bitter accusations hurled at men, all the more remarkable as the work of a male playwright, will no doubt make some men in the audience uncomfortable. A few may even get a knowing elbow in their ribs.

The older generation in Les Belles-Soeurs complains about the ways in which the world is changing and how standards are being lowered, in much the same way that today’s older generation complains about pronouns and tattoos and “adaptations” of Shakespeare. Plus ça change

This may not be the definitive Les Belles-Soeurs, but it will have to do until another comes along. It may be a long wait. Surprisingly, this is the first revival at the Stratford Festival since 1991.

Les Belles-Soeurs continues at the Festival Theatre through October 28, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Stratford Festival website.

Footnote: Esther Jun is justly proud of her “exceptional and diverse cast and creative team representing contemporary Quebec and Canada.” They are very good. And yet Les Belles-Soeurs is so culturally specific and such an iconic piece of Canadian theatre history that it might have been nice if the Stratford Festival had accorded this production the same level of cultural specificity it brought to last season’s Death and the King’s Horseman. I couldn’t help imagining a production directed by a Québécois director, with an all Québécois cast whose accented English might have suggested that untranslatable joual. Maybe next time.

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