Internet Shakespeare Editions

Shakespeare in Québec -- page 5

Shakespearean Spring

The defeat of the first referendum on Québec sovereignty in 1980 seemed to produce yet another explosion of theatrical energy. The mood, however, had become less inward-looking and more expansive, characterized by, in the words of critic Robert Lévesque, "démesure," with its implications of recklessness, and "générosité." Two Shakespearean landmarks frame the decade: the six- part, all-day Vie et mort du Roi Boiteux [Life and Death of the Limping King] in 1981, and the "Printemps Shakespeare" [Shakespearean Spring] of 1988.

The Nouveau Théâtre Expérimental, which in 1977 had produced Jean-Pierre Ronfard's Lear, in 1979-80 undertook a project they called "Shakespeare Follies," a systematic study of the plays of Shakespeare which was expected to culminate in a cabaret-style show to be filled with Shakespearean characters (Godin and Lavoie 12). What emerged instead was Ronfard's Roi Boiteux, a massive canvas of six plays representing the dynastic rivalries, over several generations and continents, of the descendants of two Québec families. Ronfard's "bloody and grotesque epic" (the subtitle of the second volume), celebrates its ludic incoherence and inclusiveness. However, the traces of Shakespeare that were its initial impulse remain. Richard Premier, the Roi Boiteux, is of course, in his disabled body, his dynastic ambitions, his moral perversity and his murderousness, related to Shakespeare's Richard III; his scion, the decrepit, wheelchair-bound, feebleminded Filippo Ragone is a version of Ronfard's earlier Lear. But just as the Roi Boiteux's body overflows its boundaries, so does his identity, which in the rich intertextuality of Ronfard's script, is repeatedly invaded by echoes of Oedipus, Nero, Hamlet, Orestes, Agamemnon and Odysseus, just to name a few. Ronfard's imagination refuses to be contained by Shakespeare's, and his Shakespeare is filtered through the carnivalized text of the Roi Boiteux. But, he makes clear, without Shakespeare the text would never have come into being or taken its final form.

Towards the end of the decade, between March and May of 1988, Shakespeare became the enfant chéri [sweetheart] (Camerlain 5) of the Montreal stage. Three audacious Shakespeares dominated the theatre season to great acclaim: The Tempest (dir. Alice Ronfard, Théâtre Expérimental des Femmes, at l'Espace GO), A Midsummer Night's Dream (dir. Robert Lepage, at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde), and the plays of Shakespeare's second tetralogy (done as Le cycle des rois, dir. Jean Asselin, Omnibus, at l"Espace Libre). Their Shakespeare, deconstructed in postmodern and dislocative stagings that took their own theatricality as their subject, was no longer the Prince of Québec.

Alice Ronfard's Tempest filled the small space of L'Espace GO with a huge sand pit representing the island and three monumental video screens, leaving room for only 100 spectators. On the screens the projection of both documentary footage and scenes from the production being performed emphasized the nature of theatre as a site of image making. The role of Prospero, played by a woman, was doubled by a figure in modern dress called "The Actor," whose presence, according to Gilbert David, encouraged "reflection on theatre as the space of the Double" (David, "D'une saison" 60). [Link to photo if permission.]

The set of Robert Lepage's Midsummer Night's Dream, a rotating platform in the shape of Shakespeare's England, similarly suggested an island that was the world that was the stage, especially when the dizzying turns of events were literally generated when Puck and the other actors got down from the platform and pushed it to make it rotate. Its spiral staircase filled the vertical height of the huge TNM stage, and Meredith Caron's very baroque and highly praised costumes, though they suggested an Elizabethan silhouette, were deliberately and grotesquely overdone to suggest that these were "play-acted" Elizabethans (who were playing Athenians). [Link to photo if permission]

The set of the Cycle des rois, too, offered an image of its world as a stage. The reflecting surfaces of its angled side pieces, evoking the polygons of the Elizabethan public theatre, multiplied the actors' images and returned to the audience an image of itself. The costumes by Yvan Gaudin (who received for them the prize of the Association québécoise des critiques de théâtre) were built from materials gathered in the second-hand shops of the poor quarters of Montreal: old clothes, curtains, bric-a-brac, and disused household appliances - an old birdcage became a crown, a discarded film reel the spiraling top of a bishop's crook. [Link to photo if permission] This was a theatre made of its place and time, but no more representing its own place and time than it represented Shakespeare's.

By taking their own theatricality as their subject, these productions were able to speak not only to Québec audiences but to audiences elsewhere, especially abroad. Reviewer Marianne Ackerman suggested that by the end of the 1980s francophone theatre artists in Québec had tired of political questions: "After a period of creative self-absorption, actors are keen to see the world, make a splash abroad, and gain inspiration from over the horizon."

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Notes

[8] Both versions were originally performed by Lepage. Part way through the run, the performance of the English version was taken over by British actor Peter Darling. [Back]