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Michel Tremblay - The Guid Sisters Return

When a Scots language production of a Quebecois play originally written in French toured to Montreal, it wasn't so much the equivalent of taking coals to Newcastle as making a serious political statement, about language, about women and about the self-determination of two small nations. Twenty years on, The Guid Sisters, Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay's translation of Michel Tremblay's play, Les Belles-Soeurs, is regarded as a contemporary classic twice over.

As the National Theatre of Scotland prepare for a major revival of The Guid Sisters in co-production with the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, there are many theatre-goers too young to remember Michael Boyd's original production for the Tron in Glasgow. Yet without this tale of fifteen women who gather for a party after one of them wins a million Green Shield stamps, arguably an entire generation of Scots playwrights might never have expressed themselves so vigorously in their own voice.

The roots of Les Belle-Soeurs lay in a visit to the movies taken by Tremblay and a friend some forty-seven years ago, in 1965.

My God,” says Tremblay in soothing Quebecois-accented English. “So long.”

Tremblay doesn’t name the film he saw, only that it was a Quebecois feature, written in French.

We hated it,” he says. “We went for coffee, and we wondered why we hated it, and we realised it was the language. It was a form of bland, generalised French, which no-one spoke in Quebec or Montreal. There were authors writing in Quebecois, but it was a very nice form of Quebecois that wasn’t living in the real world. So, over coffee, I said, why can’t I write about two women talking in the parlour, and see if it’s possible to put the language of the street onstage. Two days later I had fifteen women.

At the time, I was writing fantasy and science-fiction novels and plays, and the day before I started writing what became Les Belles-Soeurs, I didn’t know I would need to take so long over it. Then I became very passionate about these women’s’ lives and what they had to say. In mid-American theatre, a lot of the time the women were secondary, and I realised that male characters didn’t interest me.”

This has been the case, not just with Les Belles-Soeurs, but with all of his works, many of which feature the same characters in emotionally charged litanies of poetry, ritual, comedy, and the bustle of life that drives it. All of  which dates back to a very personal root.

They were the women who raised me,” says Tremblay of his characters. “I was the youngest of a household of twelve. There were three families in the same place, with my grand-mother at the head, because it was cheaper to live that way. I was so much younger than everybody else. My nearest brother to me in age was nine years older, and I would hear adults talk, and say things that wouldn’t normally be said in front of a child, because they probably thought I didn’t understand. But without realising it, something registered. The first critics of society I heard were women. The men were all at work, and I was at home with these five women.”

It was three years before anyone was prepared to take a gamble on Les Belle-Soeurs, which was ostensibly about one woman’s scooping of a shed-load of trading stamps, but which gave voice to an entire society. As well as Tremblay’s ground-breaking use of language, a play with fifteen actors onstage was as hard to resource then as it is now. When the play was finally produced, however, in the midst of Quebec’s move towards self-determination in what became known as the quiet revolution, which secularised a previously Catholic society, Les Belles-Soeurs arrived like a female-fronted riot of back-street ribaldry and wit that spoke colourfully and fearlessly about life as  its characters recognised it.

Like Glasgow twenty years later, it caused some kind of scandal,” Tremblay remembers. “Either you loved it or you hated it. There were lots of criticisms of the language. Swearing was considered bad enough, but swearing by women was unheard of. But for all the criticisms, no-one ever said it was a bad play.”

If Les Belles-Soeurs helped usher in a Quebecois cultural revolution, The Guid Sisters date back to a chance meeting between its two translators, Martin Bowman from Quebec, and the late Bill Findlay from Scotland. The pair met at the School of Scottish Studies at the university of Edinburgh, when both were separately researching the works of Irvine-born nineteenth century novelist John Galt.

Bill was keen on getting the Scots language onstage,” bowman remembers, “and asked me if there was a play we should translate.”

Les Belle-Soeurs was so iconic it was a no-brainer, and the pair spent the next two years on the project. Literary magazine Cencrastus published an excerpt, but was only in 1987 that the play's rich demotic was heard in a rehearsed reading organised by the late Tom McGrath, then Literary Director for Scotland, as part of that year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Eventually Bowman and Findlay's script trickled down to Boyd, and, in 1989, The Guid Sisters breezed in with its first production followed by two touring revivals.It was one of the first times I saw one of my plays done in a different language,” Tremblay remembers, “I remember sitting there, and I didn’t understand it, but then after five minutes I saw people laughing.”

The Guid Sisters wasn’t the first Tremblay play to be seen in Scotland. In 1986, Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre brought the remarkable Albertine in Five Times, in which five actors portrayed the same woman at different ages, arguing with each other, to Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1986. But it was The Guid Sisters that opened the door for Bowman and Findlay to translate seven more Tremblay plays prior to Findlay’s untimely death in 2005 aged fifty-seven.

The Real Wurld, The House Among The Stars, Manon/Sandra, Solemn Mass For A Full Moon in Summer, Albertine in Five Times, Forever Yours, Marie Lou and If Only have all been acclaimed as masterpieces, although none caught the Zeitgeist quite like The Guid Sisters.

Despite Findlay’s premature death, the Scots/Quebecois diaspora rolls on. The new production is directed by Quebecois wunderkind, Serge Denoncourt, and features a role-call of some of Scotland's finest female talent, including Karen Dunbar, Kathryn Howden, Molly Innes and Gail Watson. Denoncourt cut his teeth on Scottish theatre earlier this year with Stellar Quines’ ambitious bi-lingual experiment, Ana. While co-written by Clare Duffy and Pierre Yves Lemieux, Ana was the brain-child of Stellar Quines co-founder and director, Muriel Romanes, who, as an actor, was one of the original cast of Michael Boyd’s original production of The Guid Sisters. With Boyd’s encouragement, Romanes sang Canadian national anthem, Oh Canada, - in French – in the English language speaking theatre in Montreal the Tron company were playing. 

Romanes has gone on record in these pages as declaring it was the tour of The Guid Sisters that piqued an ongoing interest in Quebecois theatre. With Stellar Quines, Romanes directed  Jeanne-Mance Delisle's controversial play, The Reel of the Hanged Man, in a translation by Bowman and Findlay, as well as If Only, Bowman and Findlay’s final Tremblay collaboration, for Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre. More recently Romanes oversaw the Scots premiere of Linda Griffiths' audacious Age of Arousal, again at the Lyceum.
Denoncourt, meanwhile, has been aware of Les Belle-Soeurs since he first saw it when he himself was a child. Since then, Denoncourt has directed the play several times, though he has already informed Tremblay that his latest revisitation is likely to be the best yet.

But it isn’t just Scotland that has taken to Tremblay. Since Les Belle-Soeurs first appeared in 1968, there have been more than four hundred and fifty productions of the play.

We were there at the right moment,” Tremblay reflects. “People needed to see Les Belle-Soeurs, even though they were afraid of it. We live in a harsh world, and anywhere there is a working class, whether that is in China, Japan or Scotland, it resonates.”

Now aged seventy, these days Tremblay spends six months of the year in Montreal, and six in Key West, Florida. He's just finished a novel, the eleventh in a series charting the history of the family depicted in Les Belles-Soeurs. Both Scotland and Quebec have changed immeasurably politically, but, as with his plays, it is the humanity of Tremblay's characters that count.

Even though society changes, the human soul doesn't change so quickly,” he observes. “That's what these women talk about. The first layer of a play to disappear is the political situation. Jean-Paul Sartre's plays aren't done very much these days. Obviously they're very well-written, but his characters are ideas more than human beings. My characters are human beings. Whether it's fifteen or five hundred years later, if these women are human beings, the play will still live.”

The Guid Sisters, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, September 21st-October 13th; Kings Theatre, Glasgow, October 23rd-27th

The Herald, September 20th 2012



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