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By Jon Kaplan
Michel Tremblay’s plays are poli-tical, argues director Peter Hinton, but not in the way they were when the Quebec theatre icon wrote them in the 1970s.
Hinton, artistic director of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre English Theatre Company, helms one of Tremblay’s most expressive works, Saint Carmen Of The Main, in a new version that roots the characters in the 70s but gives a contemporary interpretation to their cry for freedom.
The title character is a country and western singer just returned to Montreal from Nashville with a revelation: she won’t sing standards, but rather her own songs about the outsiders, prostitutes, queers and hustlers who live on the Main and become the play’s choral narrators.
“Michel told me that he wrote the play to encourage Quebec to separate from Canada,” says Hinton. “Not believing that an English director now wanted to remount it in Ottawa and Toronto, he asked what it meant to me as an English Canadian.
“I don’t see the play as a period or nostalgia piece, but rather as a way to examine our own culture as English Canadians. Earlier translations informed English Canadians about the Quebec of the period, but in Linda Gaboriau’s new translation, that’s not the case.”
Hinton, who hasn’t presented much work here locally since taking over at the NAC – he directed Soulpepper’s production of William Congreve’s The Way Of The World and Allen Cole’s musical The Wrong Son at Harbourfront – points out that Tremblay’s play transcends borders. Les Belles Soeurs, he notes, was successfully adapted in Scotland as The Guid Sisters.
“The specific is rooted in Quebec, but the resonance is universal, especially when the question is about speaking in one’s authentic voice.
“We talk about that all the time: what it means to be a Canadian, or to be oneself, or the meaning of cultural diversity. Linked to those ideas are thoughts of who is marginalized and what it means to appropriate another’s culture.
“These are important political questions to all of us right now, and the play examines them while looking at how dreams can be sabotaged from within.”
Hinton began his theatre work here in the 80s and later was a Stratford Festival associate artist. I’ve missed him there, for his productions – including The Taming Of The Shrew and his own trilogy, The Swanne – were richer and more insightful than many of the festival’s other shows.
He tackles Saint Carmen with similar gusto for its theatricality as well as its politics.
“The play is part of a series that includes Forever Yours Marie-Lou [currently being performed in the original French by Théâtre français de Toronto] and Damnée Manon Sacrée Sandra. I see the three related works centred on Carmen’s family as Tremblay’s version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia cycle.”
There’s no Tremblay play more indebted to Greek tragedy than Saint Carmen, he says.
“I used to see Tremblay’s work as poetic naturalism, but Quebec artists have emphasized how much Greek theatre informs his dramaturgy. Anglophone theatregoers often think of him as a French Tennessee Williams, his plays filled with faded floral dresses and old woodwork.”
“Now I realize that realism, musicality and an epic tragic nature are key to his work.”
This article first appeared in NOW Magazine in February, 2011.