Les Belles-soeurs still speaks sharply to the power of women on-stage and the ongoing “envy economy”
More than 50 years after the debut of Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay’s incendiary Les Belles-soeurs, director Diane Brown wants to remain true to his original vision.
If he were to say it today, playwright Michel Tremblay would undoubtedly find himself on some kind of no-fly list, or at least in Facebook jail. But in 1968, at the height of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, his comment made all kinds of sense. Maybe it still does.
“I want to put a bomb in the family cell,” Quebec’s modern-day Shakespeare famously wrote. “I hate what the family and the church did to me and the people of my country.”
Gay, working-class, and fabulously talented, Tremblay was expressing his disgust with a system that was conspiring against his potential. And although things have changed in Quebec, and Canada as a whole, enough has remained the same that Diane Brown, who’s helming the first local, Englishlanguage production of Tremblay’s
Les Belles-soeurs, theatrical debut, is taking his remark as a kind of touchstone.
“You know, that’s a pretty extreme thing to say,” the director tells the Straight,
on the line from a Richmond rehearsal hall. “But the notion of the idealized French-canadian family was very strong at the time, and he blew that up. And another great quote of his that I’d like to share with you is about his idea of putting women on-stage. He put 15 women on-stage because, he said, nobody else was. The quote is: ‘One woman complaining is pitiful. Five women saying they are unhappy with their lives at the same time is the beginning of a revolution.’ ”
Given what’s playing out south of the border, nothing else should be necessary
Les Belles-soeurs’ to establish relevance, even if this year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1965 script’s on-stage debut. And Brown points out that while the Catholic Church’s grip on Quebec has radically lessened, unfettered capitalism—the other target of Tremblay’s righteous ire—is still an existential
Les Belles-soeurs’ threat to our freedom. bitterly pointed satire of “the envy economy”, she says, still holds true.
“This is what ‘everyone out for themselves’ looks like—especially in this era of [Donald] Trump, with racism and misogyny and all those hate values that are a product, really, of rudderless capitalism,” Brown contends. “These hate values are being normalized, so it’s disturbing for me to realize how incredibly timely this piece is.
“What we see is how this everyoneout-for-themselves mentality ends up in utter chaos and ruin, and costs the characters everything, personally.”
It’s true that the framing device—a Montreal housewife, Germaine Lauzon, wins a small fortune in customerloyalty stamps, exciting her family and neighbours’ envy—now seems almost antique. Redeemable stamps have been replaced by credit-card “rewards”, but human nature hasn’t changed.
“These stamps have to be pasted into booklets. They’re redeemable for furniture and appliances, and she’s won an extraordinary amount, so she invites her sisters and her daughters and her neighbours to come over and help her paste them into these booklets,” Brown explains. “Over the course of the evening we get to know these women, and we hear how they treat each other, how they treat their children… There’s a lot of strife between the older generation and the younger generation; it’s very explosive there, in terms of the old values of the Catholic Church versus the newer, secular values. They also just steal from her, eventually. They shamelessly just steal her stuff, because they can’t stand that she’s raised her status within the tribe.
“It’s competitive, it’s ugly, and we profess that it isn’t,” she adds. “And the hopelessness of their situation is really beautifully and brutally brought to life by Tremblay’s writing.”
There’s another factor at play here, beyond the ongoing significance of Tremblay’s script and the 50th anniversary of its debut. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of Brown’s Ruby Slippers Theatre, and mounting Les Belles-soeurs
is a near-perfect way of celebrating the company’s mandate.
A key aspect of Ruby Slippers’ mission statement is promoting “crosscultural pollination with Frenchcanadian plays in English translation on the West Coast; nobody else does that,” Brown says. Another core value, she continues, is “furthering the voices of women and diversity in theatre”,
Les Belles-soeurs and while was written by a man, the act of bringing 15 women together on-stage remains a radical act. And then there’s the fact that the cast, which encompasses rising stars, established actors, and beloved veterans of the Vancouver stage, is a rare example of truly multigenerational theatre, another of Brown’s directorial concerns.
So far, all of those things seem to be coming together in a gratifying way. “The spirit in the rehearsal hall is really high. Morale is really high—and there’s a lot of laughter,” Brown says. “It’s a dark comedy. It’s a very dark comedy, but there’s a lot of humour that can come out of pain and tragedy. I think we all know this; that’s what satire and dark comedy are based on.”
Ruby Slippers Theatre presents Les Bellessoeurs at the Richmond Gateway Theatre from Thursday (September 27) to October 6.
In 1965’s Les Belles-soeurs (with, left to right, Melissa Oei, France Perras, and Agnes Tong), a Montreal housewife wins a small fortune in customer-loyalty stamps, prompting excitement in her family and all-out jealousy from her neighbours.