The Woolwich Observer

The Diviners makes the jump to the stage

Based on Margaret Laurence’s classic novel, the play will make its debut this year at the Stratford Festival

- Julian Gavaghan

TO MANY, IT IS ONE of the greatest Canadian novels ever written. To some, it was a book that deserved to be banned from schools due to its allegedly “sordid” romance scenes.

Now, 50 years after it was written, Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners has been turned into a stage play that will have its world premiere at the upcoming Stratford Festival season.

The CanLit classic tells the story of Morag Gunn, a bright but poor child enchanted by stories of her Scottish ancestry, who later marries one of her university professors before having an affair and a daughter with a Métis man called Jules Tonerre.

Years later, their love child Pique leaves to discover her Indigenous heritage, triggering in her mother a series of flashbacks about her life as she contemplat­es her own identity as well.

“The Morag story is almost parallel to the Canadian story,” explains Genevieve Pelletier, who is co-directing the play and is from the Métis community of Manitoba, the province where the protagonis­t’s fictional small town of Manawaka is set.

Mirroring the different heritages in Laurence’s story, the other co-director, fellow Winnipegge­r Krista Jackson, is not Indigenous and describes herself as a “settler.”

She says she discovered The Diviners, which won the Governor-General's Award for English-language fiction in 1974, through “my Baba,” her Ukrainian grandmothe­r.

Further reflecting the complexity of Canada, this time linguistic, anglophone Jackson is an artistic director for the Imago Theatre in majority francophon­e Montreal, while francophon­e Pelletier performs the same role for the French-language Théâtre Cercle Molière in mostly English-speaking Winnipeg.

The actors they hired reflect the diversity of

The Diviners’ characters, including Julie Lumsden, a Métis with Scottish and German ancestry, who plays Pique.

“We worked with a lot of Indigenous actors, actually more Indigenous actors than settler actors for the whole process of it,” says Jackson.

“The way that the story has been developed has been really entrenched in Indigenous questionin­g and perspectiv­es.

“And now with Stratford… we not only have Indigenous actors, we also have racialized actors, who will be playing other parts too.

“On stage, you will see a big variety of folks from different cultural background­s, so that's really exciting.”

If that sounds a little heavy, the play, which was adapted for the stage by Vern Thiessen and Yvette Nolan, will also have steamy scenes between Morag and Jules to lighten the load.

“We will be exploring how to make that relationsh­ip sizzle,” says Pelletier, while also stressing that there won’t be any nudity, as she explains how they are preparing to stage the play.

She adds: “We will be discussing the whole notion of intimacy and how do we go about making that relationsh­ip. I think sexy is a good word.”

It was the sex scenes in The Diviners, Laurence’s final and probably most racy novel in her five-part Manawaka series, that were most controvers­ial when the book was published in 1974.

Opponents wrote letters to the Globe and Mail newspaper saying the novel “reeked of sordidness” and was filled with “vulgar” language and “disgusting” sex scenes.

And in February 1976, while she was living in Lakefield, Ontario, there was an attempt to get local schools to ban the book from classrooms in nearby Peterborou­gh.

Jim Telford, a school board trustee and Pentecosta­l Church member, and Rev. Sam Buick, led the opposition, but ultimately the board voted ten to six to keep the text.

“Like all of the Margaret Laurence novels, the women enjoy sex, and in the early 1970s, to have women protagonis­ts that actually have sex drives and are exploring them, was not what we were used to reading,” explains Jackson.

Laurence, who was invested into the Order of Canada in 1972, based Manawaka on her own birthplace of Neepawa, Manitoba, and the two directors say they have worked hard to translate this Prairie scene to the stage in Stratford.

Bretta Gerecke, the set and lighting designer, has constructe­d a river display because the Red and Assiniboin­e waterways are “the major metaphor in the piece,” says Jackson.

In the book, Morag, who is also a novelist and whose character is loosely based on Laurence, explains that the rivers flow both ways and encompass both the past, the present and the future.

The play will differ from the book in some ways, though.

“I would say we've taken liberties. I think we've focused a lot of the story on Pique’s quest, the Métis line of The Diviners,” explains Pelletier.

“That was definitely a choice. We decided as a team to be able to tell that story, I think, with reverence, honesty, and to add to the canon of Métis stories on the territory…

“That story, and there's a real sense for me personally, of pride around that, because there are so few Métis stories out there.”

Pelletier also says the use of dance and music from her Indigenous community in the play will help them “really delve into” this story.

The Diviners opens at the Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford on August 24 and will run until October 2. Preview performanc­es begin on August 7.

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 ?? Submitted ?? This season, the Stratford Festival stages a production of The Divers featuring Irene Poole as Morag and Julie Lumsden as Pique. It’s co-directed by Genevieve Pelletier and Krista Jackson.
Submitted This season, the Stratford Festival stages a production of The Divers featuring Irene Poole as Morag and Julie Lumsden as Pique. It’s co-directed by Genevieve Pelletier and Krista Jackson.

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