Sunday, 4 December 2011

Ana - Stellar Quines Go To Montreal

As you read this, Scottish theatre company Stellar Quines is in the
midst of premiering Ana, a new bi-lingual play by Scots writer Clare
Duffy and Quebecoius playwright Pierre-Yves Lemieux. Co-produced with
French-Canadian company, Imago, Ana opened last Tuesday night at
Theatre Epace Go in Montreal prior to a Scottish tour in Spring 2012.
On the face of it there is nothing unusual about any of this.

Scotland's theatre scene has had a long and fecund relationship with
Quebecois theatre, largely through the work of Michel Tremblay. Eight
of his emotionally-charged poetic parables have been translated into
Scots-accented English by Martin Bowman and, up until his death, Bill
Findlay. The Guid Sisters in particular fired the imaginations of
audiences in both countries via an acclaimed 1992 production by
outgoing Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Michael Boyd when
he was in charge of Glasgow’s Tron Theatre.

Almost twenty years later, The Guid Sisters is set to be revived in a
new co-production between the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh and the National
Theatre of Scotland. The director will be Serge Denoncourt, a mercurial
figure on the Quebecois scene who, as well as working with Cirque du
Soleil and introducing French-Canadian audiences to the work of Howard
Barker and Steven Berkoff, has had a long working relationship with
Tremblay.

Denoncourt is also directing Ana, which has been developed in a unique
trans-global collaboration between Stellar Quines and Imago over the
last five years. The fact that Stellar Quines artistic director Muriel
Romanes was part of the 1992 Guid Sisters cast speaks volumes about
this ongoing Scots-Quebec alliance.

“There were standing ovations every night,” Romanes remembers of The
Guid Sisters several days before her latest Canadian visit. “There was
something about that Scottish Quebec sensibility that worked. It was
some kind of magic. The independence referendum was going on in Quebec
at the time, and Michael Boyd insisted that I sing Oh Canada in French
in an English speaking theatre in Montreal.”

It was out of this that Romanes grew curious about Quebecois
playwriting.

“There seemed to be something similar going on with what was going on
here in terms of work that was very emotionally connected,” she
observes.

While the Scots Tremblay wave continued with the likes of a
heart-breakingly gorgeous take on A Solemn Mass For A Full Moon In
Summer at The Traverse, where Daniel Danis’ Stones and Ashes was also
seen in a version by Tom McGrath, Romanes went further. Both
Jeanne-Mance Delisle’s Reel of the Hanged Man, seen in 2000, and Linda
Griffiths’ more recent Age of Arousal, have become pivotal productions
in Stellar Quines’ history. Ana is something else again.

“The three words that have driven the play from the start are
creativity, women and madness,” Duffy explains in the Royal Lyceum
Theatre rehearsal room in Edinburgh, where Denoncourt is working
through a complex-looking script with Scots-based actresses, Lisa
Gardner, Frances Thorburn and Selina Boyack. The trio won’t be in the
same room with their three Quebecois colleagues, Catherine Bégin,
Magalie Lépine Blondeau and Dominique Leduc until they convene in
Montreal.

“I’ve always been interested in the crossover between madness and
creativity,” Romanes says. “A lot of the time you have to go to a dark
place to find something extraordinary, and I suppose I was looking for
something that would make me excited.”

Romanes put her head together with Clare Shapiro, whose Imago company
is akin to Stellar Quines in terms of being female-driven.

“We talked about how to do a collaboration that wasn’t just about one
of our writers going over there and vice versa. We thought, well, why
don’t we go the whole hog, get artists, designers, actors and writers
working together.”

With Duffy and Lemieux writing separately before their work was
translated back and forth into each other’s language in a complicated
Russian doll-like structure, such a venture itself sounds unhinged. A
time-jumping narrative nevertheless developed involving “one woman's
journey through life, madness and all the hardships that are thrown at
her. I suggested the structure of a family tree, where you get two
people, and they split, then they split again, and you end up with
hundreds of people that could be viewed as multiple personalities. A
character starts a journey, then reaches a point where they have to
make a decision, then splits, so we can go on both the journeys, or
flashback to some of the journeys that fall off the edge.”

With each of the six actresses playing a different aspect of Ana’s
character, such a multi-layered approach recalls Tremblay’s Albertine
In Five Times, in which five actresses play the same woman arguing with
her younger and older selves. There are shades too of the split
personalities represented in Brecht’s opera, The Seven Deadly Sins.
For Denoncourt, who came on board two years ago, the experience is a
challenge he is clearly relishing.

“It’s kind of a blind date,” he muses. “Which is fun, because I’ve had
a lot of dates, but I’ve known what will happen with them. With this, I
don’t. It puts everyone in a scary place. I’m playing with my own
limits as well, but you have to put yourself outside your comfort zone,
otherwise it becomes boring. You have to put yourself in the risk zone
if you want to find out something new about yourself as an artist,
because nobody will do it for you.”

Given his long-term championing of Tremblay, it should come as no
surprise that much of Denoncourt’s work has been female focused.
“Womens’ parts are more interesting than mens’,” he says. “Look at
Blanche Dubois. Lady Macbeth is more interesting than Macbeth. Juliet
is more interesting than Romeo. That’s why I’ve directed The Good
Sisters (in French, Les Belles Soeurs) four times. I love it. I love
having those fifteen actresses onstage. In my opinion, women are far
better actors than men. All my male actors know that, and although they
make jokes about it, they agree. Women actors will try anything, but
men will worry about their reputation.”

Speaking of reputation, Romanes happily admits that “In Montreal we’re
riding on Serge’s name. Audiences don’t know who the hell we are. By
the same token audiences here won’t know him.”

If Ana is pushing things gender-wise, it also pioneers a form of
autonomous international exchange not necessarily legislated by funding
agencies.

“We made the rules for this project ourselves,” says Romanes, “and they
don’t actually fit any of the criteria. On one level this is madness,
but it’s a way of moving the company forward.”

Reviews for Ana thus far have been mixed. Last Thursday’s edition of
the Montreal Gazette called it an ‘audacious dramatic exercise in
search of a play’, and an ‘eccentric mix of old-style feminism, exotic
myths and European history…with occasional lapses into sketch comedy’.
Comparing it to the likes of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, Criss Angel’s
Believe (the Cirque du Soleil magic show that Denoncourt directed in
Las Vegas) and Saturday Night Live, the Gazette also suggested Ana’s
eponymous everywoman was ‘a bit like Dr Who’.

Given the unique nature of the play’s creation, one suspects Romanes is
more than capable of taking such responses on the chin. As she said
herself of Ana whilst still in Edinburgh, “It could be a magnificent
piece of theatrical work, but it could also be crap. That’s how it
should be. We’re not here to please everybody. We’re here to take a
journey to see if we can find the extraordinary.”

Ana, Theatre Espace Go, Montreal, tonight-December 10th; Traverse
Theatre, Edinburgh from March 2nd.
www.stellarquines.com
www.espacego.com
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, November 26th 2011

ends

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