The Quebec Connection
Scotland and Quebec enjoy strong cultural and political connections, a fact that was reinforced for Mark Brown when he attended the Carrefour International theatre festival in Quebec City
The cultural connections between Scotland and Quebec, and, in particular, between the theatres of the two countries, are fascinating. Given the massive Scottish diaspora in Ontario (it is said that Scots-Canadians are to Toronto what Irish-Americans are to Boston), Nova Scotia and the other “Anglo” provinces of Canada, it is curious that it should be French-speaking Quebec that so ignites the Scottish theatrical imagination.
Yet it is unquestionable that it does so. Since the 1980s, Scottish theatre has been illuminated by the work of such outstanding Quebec dramatists as Michel Tremblay, Robert Lepage, Jeanne-Mance Delisle and Catherine-Anne Toupin.
Lepage, the great stage poet and magician of theatre technologies, was once a regular visitor to Glasgow’s Tramway venue. His most recent appearance in Scotland, with 887 (which, among other things, is a love letter to his hometown of Quebec City), was during the Edinburgh International Festival of 2015.
The Scotland-Quebec connection is underlined by the superb Scots translations of Tremblay’s plays of working-class Montreal by Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman. Their fabulous rendering of Tremblay’s Le Belles-Soeurs (which they called, in Scots, The Guid Sisters) was staged most recently by the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) in 2011.
As recently as last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the NTS staged First Snow, a co-production with Montreal-based companies Productions Hotel-Motel and Theatre PAP which was co-authored by Scottish and Quebecois writers.
So, what is it that draws Scotland and Quebec together? There are cultural ties, certainly, but the greatest commonality is, surely, in their modern political histories. Two stateless nations under the British Crown, Scotland and Quebec both sit, tantalisingly, on the verge of independence.
If Scotland came close to leaving the UK in 2014 (when the Yes vote came in at 45 percent), Quebec came even closer to breaking with Canada in 1995 (when 49.42 of the electorate voted for independence on a turnout of almost 94 percent).
In that context, it is, perhaps, not surprising that Scotland and Quebec should have developed such a close affinity. It might also help to explain, at a micro level, why I, as a Scottish theatre critic, have been invited to Quebec City to experience the city’s premier drama showcase Le Carrefour International de Theatre.
The Old City, where I’m fortunate enough to be staying, is a picture postcard image of Quebec’s colonial influences. Wander through the streets of the Old City and you will discover that Scots have long been a part of the life of the city. The St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, for example, was erected in 1810.
The Carrefour festival itself is, like the city, predominantly French in language, but with a sprinkling of work in other tongues. At Théâtre La Bordée, I take in Le Pas Grand Chose (No Great Thing), a one-man show by Parisian artist Johann Le Guillerm, a practitioner of “nouveau cirque”.
Interestingly, this is the first time he has ever spoken on stage. He appears in a suit and tie, which clashes visibly with his shaved head, thin, straggling ponytail and “minimalist” shoes (the ones that look like feet).
Performing with the aid of an extraordinary contraption that combines furniture, wheels and mini video cameras, he proceeds to give an ingenious, increasingly eccentric (and humorous) illustrated lecture on physics, geometry and the origins of life. Topped off, inevitably, by a piece of madcap circus performance, it is the kind of show one can imagine going down well on the Edinburgh Fringe.
At Cooperative Meduse, we are reminded that there’s more to Francophone Canada than simply the province of Quebec. Michel Ouellette is from Ontario and is considered one of the most important French-speaking playwrights in Canada.
A monodrama, performed with vigour and passion by Marie-Eve Fontaine, Le dire de Di (The Speaking of Di) tells the story of a young woman in rural Ontario who falls in love with the woman sent by a mining company to negotiate her family’s departure from their land. Segueing between the character’s internal thoughts and her external experiences, it is a powerfully engaging piece.
At Theatre Periscope Madame Catherine Prepare sa Classe de Troisieme a l’irremediable (Miss Catherine Prepares Her Third Year Class for the Irredeemable) is, but for a brief intervention by a male actor, another solo show. In this play from Montreal, Alice Pascual gives an emotionally draining performance as the titular primary school teacher Madame Catherine, whose fear of a Sandy Hook-style school shooting has morphed into a very dangerous breakdown in her mental health.
Despite the palpable commitment of Pascual’s performance, the play becomes predictable and melodramatic. In attempting to be a piece about both school massacres and individual mental health, it fails to do sufficient justice to either subject.
A major element of Le Carrefour since 2009, Ou tu vas quand tu dors en marchant…? (Where Do You Go When You Sleepwalk… ?) is a beautiful, quirky, two-hour street theatre extravaganza. The people of Quebec City have taken this festival event to their hearts, turning out in their thousands for this “walk-through experience”.
In a series of locations around, over and, even, on the Saint-Charles River, we encounter a charming array of defiantly analogue art installations and larger-than-life characters. On the bridge over the river, ethereal performers and aerial artists create a magical dream world.
Along one of the river banks, illuminated clouds emerge from the chimney of a model castle and float on wires above the heads of the promenading audience. Nearby we can visit a complete fishing village where the assembled characters set aside their daily concerns to sing and dance together.
On the other river bank we find a field full of surreal, Pythonesque characters. At one spot, a bedraggled bride gets drunk sitting on a marooned pedal boat in the shape of a giant swan. Elsewhere, a hapless soldier, surrounded by dozens of little, plastic flamingos, is involved in combat with a huge paint-by-numbers picture.
It’s all gloriously bonkers and delightfully reminiscent of the work of Scotland’s own street theatre specialists Mischief La-Bas.
Perhaps the biggest international name at this year’s Carrefour was acclaimed Berlin-based theatre collective Rimini Protokoll. Their piece Granma: Trombones from Havana (a co-production with the Maxim Gorki Theatre, Berlin) is a fascinating work of collectively devised theatre.
The play is named after the Granma (the boat on which Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and 80 of their comrades sailed from Mexico to Cuba to begin the Cuban Revolution in 1956) and performed almost entirely in Spanish. Four young Cubans negotiate their relationship with the Revolution through their family histories (Daniel’s grandfather was the first Minister for the Nationalisation of Property, for example, while Diana’s granddad was a founding member of one of Cuba’s great musical bands).
Personal recollections mix with projections of dramatic film footage, video interviews, photographs and objects. Throughout, this material is interspersed with the playing of trombones, which both evokes the distinctive music of Cuba and creates ironic and humorous sound effects.
The show is brilliantly politically literate and unmistakably revolutionary. However, it doesn’t shrink from broaching some of the problems of Castro’s administration, such as its repressive “re-education” programmes for gay people.
Quebec City, like Edinburgh, prides itself on being a festival city for all of the art forms. Like Edinburgh, Quebec City is also the national capital. As such, it is home to many of the country’s important cultural institutions.
This includes the Musee National des Beaux Arts de Quebec (MNBAQ). During this year’s Carrefour, the gallery opened a major (and magnificent) exhibition of works by the great Spanish modernist artist Joan Miro (the first in Quebec for more than 30 years).
Miro made about a third of his art at his studio on the island of Mallorca. The MNBAQ exhibition, entitled Miro in Mallorca, shows a dazzling and diverse array of his fascinating paintings and sculptures. It runs until September 8.
I couldn’t be in Quebec City without visiting La Caserne, the home theatre of Ex Machina, the company of the great theatremaker, filmmaker and actor Robert Lepage. I first experienced, and fell in love with, Lepage’s work (in the shape of Elsinore, his remarkable, one-man version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet) at Tramway in Glasgow some 23 years ago.
In 2001, I had the good fortune to meet him, in Australia, to interview him ahead of the Sydney Festival performances of his brilliant, solo meditation on space travel The Far Side of the Moon.
I visited La Caserne, not to see a show, but to talk with Bernard Gilbert, who founded Le Carrefour back in 1992. Gilbert is now the general manager of Ex Machina’s soon-to-be-opened new theatre, Le Diamant.
Between now and August, Ex Machina will leave its current home in downtown Quebec (where it has been resident since 1997), and move to Le Diamant, in the Old City. The venue (a splendid, modern theatre with glass walls, behind a carefully reconstructed frontage that speaks to the city’s architectural heritage) will open its doors, with a new production of Lepage’s acclaimed play The Seven Streams of the River Ota, in late August.
The theatre (which Ex Machina will share with a number of other theatre and performance companies) takes its name from Cap Diamant, the hill upon which Quebec City was built. The hill was “discovered” by the pioneering French explorer (and founder of French Canada) Jacques Cartier in 1534. Cartier originally thought the hill was glistening with diamonds, although it turned out to be iron.
Future audiences for Le Carrefour should find themselves in Le Diamant, Gilbert tells me. The hope is that it will become the central hub of the festival.
He hopes, too, that the theatre will forge international links, including with Scotland. “In terms of the performing arts, the relationship between Quebec artists and Glasgow and Edinburgh, especially the Edinburgh Festival, has been strong for years”, he says.
That said, he has to admit that things could be better where Lepage is concerned. “I know that [Lepage’s] relationship with some venues in Scotland is not as strong as it was, and that definitely includes Tramway.”
For those of us who have long complained that Tramway’s international profile has been neglected by Glasgow leisure supremo Bridget McConnell, the apparent rift with an artist of the stature of Lepage is a real cause for concern.
On a more positive note, Gilbert is keen to point out that Quebec City new circus group Machine de Cirque will be in residence at the Assembly Rooms, with their show La Galerie, during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe (August 1-25). It may not always be plain sailing, but the cultural connection between Scotland and Quebec is still going strong.
This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on June 9, 2019
© Mark Brown