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The Flip Side Illustration by Scott McKeown

The Flip Side

In Montreal, Jim Burke explains, French and English theatres set the stage for mutual understanding.

More than five decades have passed since the premiere of Michel Tremblay’s classic Les Belles-sœurs launched Montreal on its journey towards becoming a centre of world-class theatre. The city is now host to dozens of theatre companies, as well as a thriving festival culture, in both French and English. There are few places where such a wealth of vibrant and innovative work is being made in a single language, let alone two. And yet a gulf of mutual unknowing still yawns between the two main linguistic communities in Montreal, at least as far as theatre is concerned.

Having been involved in Montreal theatre since moving here from England in the mid-aughts—and reviewing for the Montreal Gazette since 2015—I’ve seen many examples of this gulf between theatre makers, audiences and critics. For the most part, we in the Montreal media have remained corralled in our safe linguistic spaces. The Gazette, Quebec’s only English-language daily, may be slightly ahead of the game when it comes to crossing over to the “other side,” at least compared to the relatively sparse anglo theatre coverage in the two main francophone newspapers, Le Devoir and La Presse, and in the theatre magazine JEU. But before we get too self-congratulatory, let’s acknowledge that there are some obvious reasons for this disparity.

For one thing, there’s the sheer amount of francophone theatre being produced here. There are just two venue-based anglo theatre companies in Montreal—Centaur Theatre and the Segal Centre—compared with at least ten on the francophone side. (If a Montreal company includes “Théâtre” in its name, you can safely assume it’s francophone—except for Infinithéâtre which, confusingly, is a company dedicated to new English plays.) It’s unreasonable, then, to expect francophone theatre critics, already faced with such competing demands for their attention, to add English theatre to their beat, at least to any significant extent.

And then there are the politics surrounding the protection and promotion of the French language in Quebec, which might well have led some critics to consciously avoid anglophone productions. This suspicion was addressed a few years ago when Infinithéâtre’s then-director Guy Sprung took the fight, in French, to Le Devoir itself. Under a provocative headline—which translated as “Are English Theatre Artists Real Québécois?”—Sprung noted that “Le Devoir and La Presse published their cultural calendars this fall without mentioning even one English-language theatre production in Quebec.” He went on to suggest that the provincial granting agency, the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, is biased against anglophone theatre makers. CALQ strenuously denied this claim and invited Sprung and other anglo theatre figures into a constructive dialogue.

It’s one of many encouraging signs that, despite the inevitable politicking, there is an increasing willingness to hear one another out. And this uptick in receptivity seems to be bearing fruit creatively, too. Over the last few years, French and English theatres have made ever more strenuous attempts to bridge the linguistic divide, with co-productions, translations of one another’s work and a growing number of artists working in both languages. 

The challenge now is to persuade audiences, many of whom are unaware of these developments, to follow where theatre practitioners dare to tread. Beyond reporting on tensions between the two linguistic communities, we critics might also play a role in promoting understanding between them—ideally increasing our understanding of them ourselves.

It’s natural for critics to gravitate toward their linguistic comfort zones when it comes to covering an art form that mostly relies on the spoken word. For my own part, I know that my limitations in French have meant that I can seriously miss the nuances of a play, even if I understand the surface meaning of what’s going on. (Despite several French immersion courses and living in a largely francophone family, my fluency in French is, shall we say, a work-in-progress.)

I usually try to remedy these limitations by reading a script in both languages before seeing it on the stage, a practice which is obviously easier with well-known classical texts than with new works. That’s one reason I’m more likely to attend a francophone venue like Théâtre du Nouveau Monde—which in the past few years has put on works by the likes of Shakespeare, Molière, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and Beckett—rather than new writing venues like, say, Théâtre La Licorne and Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui. There’s the calculation, too, that English readers will be more receptive to reviews of French productions of well-known classics than of new writing (unless it’s by giants of Québécois theatre such as Michel Tremblay or Robert Lepage).

This can mean missing out on important new developments in francophone theatre, which, as Radio-Canada journalist Louis-Philippe Ouimet argues, is currently enjoying a Golden Age of playwriting. For instance, anglophone critics stuck in their silo might be unfamiliar with the several francophone Indigenous companies, such as Ondinnok and Menuentakuan, which have been doing terrific work lately.

And even when watching French plays with which I’ve familiarized myself, it’s often the case that I’ve found myself sitting bemused in the midst of an audience which is clearly getting some turn of phrase or social reference that has eluded me. The comic potential of the dual meaning of the word gosses, for example, has become something of a cliché here in Montreal—in France, it means kids, while in Quebec it means testicles. Imagine the confusion, then, for the anglo critic who hasn’t been steeped in the Québécois slang known as joual on hearing this line from a production of Grease: “Lâche-moi les gosses, maudit moron!”

Or take Catherine Léger’s Baby-sitter (despite the title, it’s a francophone play) which played at La Licorne in 2017. Its starting point is an incident in which a hockey fan verbally and crudely harasses a female sports reporter while she’s on air. I didn’t realize at the time that this was based on what was, in francophone circles, a widely known real-life event involving Chantal Machabée, a veteran reporter on Quebec’s French-language sports channel RDS. Neither did I recognize that it was Machabée herself who had provided a voiceover for the production.

With moments like these in mind, I chose to take a pass a couple of years back on reviewing Théâtre du Rideau Vert’s annual sketch show Revue et corrigée. With its rapid-fire stream of in-jokes, wordplay, pop culture references from francophone TV and impersonations of well-known Quebecers, I anticipated that much of it would sail over my head. Instead, I asked Sarah Deshaies, a fellow anglophone critic, to cover it for the Gazette.

Even though confidently bilingual, she approached the task with a touch of trepidation. (As it happens, an unfamiliarity with Québécois sports coverage was one of the things that tripped her up too.) “I was definitely concerned about making sure I understood everything—not just the language, phrases, expressions. You have pop culture references that are very important to catch,” she says. “There was an impersonation of a sports broadcaster that kind of went over my head a little bit. But so much of the other stuff was perfect. There was a Céline Dion bit, and there were jokes about construction that any Montrealer would get.”

Still, the deeper impact of the lived experience of a francophone Quebecer can sometimes fail to register with anglophone critics. This seemed to be the case for me with Michel Tremblay’s 1973 classic, Hosanna. On the face of it, it’s a tragedy about a drag queen whose labyrinthine persona—a man dressed as a woman dressed as Elizabeth Taylor dressed as Cleopatra—understandably begins to unravel when a Halloween party goes horribly wrong.

When I reviewed it in 2015, I failed to detect what the New York Times had noticed about the play: that it’s a political metaphor about Quebec being forced to clothe itself in the ill-fitting habillements of Canadian or American identity. Had I missed a crucial element that would have been obvious to a francophone Quebecer? Actually, maybe not. When I interviewed Tremblay a couple of years ago, I asked him about Hosanna’s status as a political allegory on Québécois identity. He debunked it, laughing over the fact that he had been misquoted in the Times more than four decades ago and it’s been following him ever since.

On the other hand, there’s an unmistakable political dimension to François Archambault’s Tu te souviendras de moi, which played in English at the Centaur as You Will Remember Me five years ago. It concerns a history professor whose memories of the 1980 referendum are being filtered through and distorted by the onset of Alzheimer’s. A well-informed anglo critic can and should be familiar with the historical details the play is referencing. But Archambault told me at the time that one inspiration for writing the play was his memory of seeing his father cry when the “No” result came in. Could such a critic understand the play at an emotional, gut level in the way a francophone critic would?

Theatre has always sought to raise empathy for characters whose life experiences may seem unfamiliar, even alien, when one first takes a seat in the auditorium. An important task for theatre in Montreal, then, is surely to facilitate a reaching across the linguistic divide. And the more that anglophone and francophone theatres work together, the more likely it will be that those in the media follow our own linguistic “teams” across to the “other” side.

Montreal theatres have increased their collaborations in recent years. In 2020, the anglophone Segal Centre and the francophone Théâtre du Nouveau Monde co-produced an English and a French version of the same play, Underneath the Lintel, starring celebrated Québécois actor Emmanuel Schwartz as an obsessive librarian who uncovers an age-old mystery thanks to an overdue book. Last year, Centaur Theatre boss Eda Holmes directed Michel Marc Bouchard’s latest play Embrasse, a fantasia about a young fashion designer meeting the ghost of Yves Saint Laurent, at TNM. Holmes was due to direct it in English at her own theatre in January 2022, under the title Kisses Deep.

While the French versions of Underneath the Lintel and Embrasse played during the pandemic, growing case counts meant the English versions were pulled before they could be staged. Nevertheless, these experiments in shared English and French programming— unprecedented here in Montreal—were a promising sign of things to come. This spring, the Black Theatre Workshop (Canada’s oldest Black theatre company) plans to present at the francophone Théâtre La Licorne both French and English versions of Dominique Morrisseau’s Pipeline, the story of a young Black man in the US penal system.

Local theatres have also started using projected surtitles to advance this project of mutual understanding. La Licorne pioneered their use in Montreal several years ago with regular captioned performances, although the theatre has since quietly dropped the practice. “When we had surtitles, I think there were about twenty anglos who would come every time,” says La Licorne director Philippe Lambert. “That was fun. We always recognized them and spoke with them. It’s a shame we couldn’t continue that, but…for twenty people?”

If that sounds inhospitable, it should be acknowledged that the technology for surtitles doesn’t come cheap, potentially costing tens of thousands of dollars per production. Even with government funding targeted at the technology and labour required, that might mean other elements of a production getting short-changed. For its part, Centaur Theatre had two nights of surtitled performances for its production of Paradise Lost in early 2020. Theatre director Eda Holmes hopes to reintroduce the practice for some productions in the future, though she says she doesn’t think it’s a catch-all solution. “You can’t just surtitle shows and say ‘Oh, now we’re doing things for the French community.’”

While Montreal theatre companies mostly welcome media coverage from across the linguistic divide, simpatico treatment is by no means guaranteed. Such was the case with The Death of René Lévesque, David Fennario’s drama about Quebec’s beloved premier, which played at the Centaur in the nineties. It drew scathing reviews from the French language papers, partly for artistic reasons, but also for political ones. At the time, Guy Sprung wrote that French critics took issue with the play’s tarnishing of Parti Québécois’ “untouchable icon,” and for “daring to challenge Quebec’s rather fragile and vulnerable nationalism.”

More recently, two francophone shows got blanket coverage in the anglo press, again for all the wrong reasons. First there was the infamous incident at Théâtre du Rideau Vert where a white performer wore blackface for an impersonation of hockey player P.K. Subban in 2014. Then there was Robert Lepage’s SLĀV, which played at TNM in 2018. The show, which was cancelled after a few performances, came under fire for casting white actors as enslaved African Americans.

Amid public outcry, Ghanaian-American musician Moses Sumney pulled out of the Montreal Jazz Festival which was hosting SLĀV, writing in an open letter: “The point you are missing is that there is no context in which white people performing black slave songs is okay.” (Lepage subsequently worked with the Parisian Théâtre du Soleil to produce a show about Indigenous Peoples without a single Indigenous performer in the cast.)

The fallout from the SLĀV and blackface debacles was significant and continues to inform discussions about cultural appropriation and diversity on Montreal stages. Yet there was a noticeably different tone to the reporting and commentaries in Montreal’s francophone and anglophone media, with the former being, in general, much more condemning of what was seen as the tyranny of political correctness, rather than of Lepage’s missteps.

Subsequent events, particularly the uprisings for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd, have given rise to more consensus between anglophones and francophones on questions of racism in Montreal, at least in the theatre community. Whatever Premier François Legault might say about there being no systemic racism in Quebec, theatre makers like Théâtre Duceppe’s David Laurin and Jean-Simon Traversy (who are both white) recognize that there has been a problem with representation on Montreal’s francophone stages.

“We always felt there was a huge historical delay between the French community from Quebec and the rest of, let’s say, America and Europe,” says Laurin, touching on the differing sense of urgency regarding questions of diversity in the theatre. In 2017, for instance, TNM staged Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, a story set in China between the First and Second World Wars, without a single person of colour in its eighteen-person cast. If the reckonings around SLĀV and the blackface incident were a wake-up call to some in the industry, Laurin believes it was a long time coming.

I’ve avoided using the well-worn cliché of The Two Solitudes. But as Rahul Varma, artistic director of the multicultural company Teesri Duniya Theatre pointed out to me, whatever level of cooperation is reached between francophone and anglophone theatre makers and their respective media, the story is nowhere near over until Black, Indigenous and communities of colour—which Varma calls “the other solitude”—are given their due representation on stages and in media pages.

Though there’s still much work to do, these developments will only add to the richness of a theatre culture already made extraordinary by virtue of its unique linguistic status. As an anglophone critic working in Montreal, I’m certainly appreciative of our incredible francophone theatre tradition, while being mindful that I still have some way to go myself before I’m able to fully experience it. In other words, il faut that I learn the language correctement, hosti. ✲

Jim Burke is the theatre critic for the Montreal Gazette. He has written on theatre and cinema for various magazines and newspapers. Originally from England, he has written several plays, including an award-winning adaptation of Moby Dick, which toured the UK and also played in Montreal.