Langham Court Theatre recently presented a three-week run of Michel Tremblay’s 1965 play Les Belles-Soeurs. In this production, under the clear and bold direction of Judy Treloar, fourteen local actresses give a strong interpretation of this staple of Canadian theatre. While previously performed at Langham in 1997, the piece originally premiered in Montreal in 1968, which is where the story is set. Because of the widely relatable nature of the cast of working-class women and their situations, challenges, and emotions, it has been translated into thirty languages and is performed all over the world.
Les Belles-Soeurs revolves around Germaine Lauzon, played with proficiency, specificity, and pathos by seasoned Victoria theatre veteran Pam Miller. Lauzon’s character is unconventional from a theatre history perspective because she is a complicated working-class housewife in the 1960s, and from a broader writing perspective because she is patently unlikeable. Miller’s charm as a performer is irresistible, but the script, Treloar, and Miller herself go out of their way to clearly indicate that Lauzon is not a good sister, mom, friend, or host. She is greedy, materialistic, and oblivious to the needs of those around her.
At the beginning of the play, we get a sizeable scene of Lauzon celebrating the one million “Gold Star Stamps” that she has won and telling her adult daughter Linda (played with a youthful oscillation between indignation and exuberance by Colleen Maguire, who pulls double duty as costume designer) about her plans to invite all of the women in her life over for a night of pasting stamps into books. This opening scene between mother and daughter is crucial, as the establishment of Germaine’s flaws allow the audience to have a complex reaction when the invited women reveal that they dislike Germaine and are stealing all of her stamps. While we recognize Lauzon’s negative traits, Miller’s charm compels us to still feel some sympathy or empathy for the character.
Tremblay’s layered and careful writing demonstrates that these various women are at a cold war with each other; they are friendly and cordial enough to see each other at church and go to social gatherings, but they are for the most part not actually supporting, respectful, or loving of each other. Through a number of monologues and speeches, staged skillfully and performed beautifully by the entire cast, the women reveal, sometimes independently and sometimes in unison, that they share many of the same fears, concerns, and troubles.
However, in conversation with each other, the characters are often argumentative, antagonistic, and duplicitous. They are all suffering from difficult and mundane lives, due to various combinations of socioeconomic problems and family situations, but rather than building any kind of solidarity or camaraderie their interactions make their lives harder. Germaine witnesses her sisters and perceived friends steal from her at first clandestinely and eventually openly and chaotically. However, over the course of the play, these same women must endure a variety of trials themselves, including social ostracism, gossip, verbal abuse, and physical abuse from a variety of sources. Every character has moments of villainy, and every character has moments of at least major likeability, if not outright heroism.
She strikes a remarkable balance between depicting Rose’s crass and judgemental interactions with her family members and friends, behaviour that is in contrast with her engaging personality, humour, and tenacity.
The actress who best executes this balancing act of villain and hero is Kate McCallum Pagett as Rose, Germaine’s sister. Pagett oozes charisma and stage presence, capturing the audience’s attention the moment she is on stage. She strikes a remarkable balance between depicting Rose’s crass and judgemental interactions with her family members and friends, behaviour that is in contrast with her engaging personality, humour, and tenacity. Toward the end of the play Pagett delivers a devastating monologue, which not only draws the audience further into her persona story, but also explains the mysterious underlying solemnity and stoicism of this otherwise feisty and animated character. While the entire cast works together well as an ensemble, other particularly strong performances include Deirdre Tipping as Germaine’s shunned younger sister Pierrette, Denise Girvin as the bombastic and stubborn Rhéauna, and Hilary Wheeler as the naive, fiery, and secretly pregnant, Lise.
While all of the characters certainly belong to the mid-1960s working class in Montreal—as exhibited by their group conversation topics, their fixation with the stamps, and the subjects of their monologues—there are several secondary class distinctions even within the larger group. Treloar’s staging helps to define these various groupings as the women occupy four distinct spaces during the action of the play: three tables spanning across the stage as well as the counter area upstage.
Along with the positioning of the women, Colleen Maguire’s thoughtful costuming serves to illustrate the various dividing lines among the smaller groups of women through her clever use of colour, silhouette and accessories. The garishly overdressed Germaine is seated at the centre table with her two sisters and friend Yvette, all dressed in warm colours in polished but sensible outfits. The seemingly lower working-class women Marie and Des-Neiges are at the stage left table in more modest garments, mostly in cooler colours, while the stage right table inhabitants wear muted, neutralized colours–save for accents such as white buttons and piping for the self-righteous yet corrupt Thérèse, a gold scarf for the snobby Lisette, and a hat with a ribbon for the senile Olivine. When other women enter the space later in the play, they sort themselves into this configuration by class distinction and by colour; the two women who arrive late due to being at a funeral are understandably dressed in black and sit with the understated stage left pair, while the three younger characters, wearing bright or sparkly colours in lengths and silhouettes that would be progressive for the time, situate themselves upstage on or near the kitchen counters.
When these various characters move from their established spaces, it is to highlight or propagate specific emotional beats of the story, or to set up several excellent comedic relief moments, such as Yvette (Debbie Robinson) moving downstage to detail the extremely French-Canadian names of the guests at a recent social gathering to an unconditionally delighted Olivine (Janie Woods-Morris).
When these various characters move from their established spaces, it is to highlight or propagate specific emotional beats of the story, or to set up several excellent comedic relief moments…
In performing this play in English, this cast and creative team face a unique challenge that those working from other translations would not have had to contend with: the relationship between French and English as languages and cultures in Quebec. The two languages have historically divided the citizens of the province, pervading every aspect of culture, including education, class, economics, geography, politics, and religion. In presenting this play in English, Treloar is asking her cast not only to portray characters that originally spoke joual, a Montreal working-class dialect of French, but also to have them speak English with their best approximations of a French accent. This linguistic arrangement provides numerous contextual challenges given the history of French and English in Quebec, including issues around class distinctions and signifiers, tone and nuance, as well as the pitfalls of portraying the religious and political landscape of Quebec in the 1960s.
Furthermore, the French accents necessitated the huge logistical undertaking of having dialect coach Hélène Potvin teach the cast their French-Canadian accents, to varying degrees of success. As expected, the actresses who mentioned a French-Canadian connection in their biography, such as Miller and Pagett, had the most believable accents, while some of the less experienced actresses struggled with this particular element.
Despite the specific historical, linguistic, and cultural context of this play, it deals with universal themes of alienation, depression, sexism, hypocrisy, religious oppression, judgement, and perception.
As a gay male writer, Tremblay is an outsider to not only the female characters he creates, but also to the unseen male-driven culture that oppresses them. This external yet connected perspective adds a tangible coldness to the piece, strengthening it as an early precursor to the feminist art and theatre that emerged more prominently in the 1970s. The broad and challenging range of subject matter, along with the all-female cast, makes it an uncommon and worthwhile selection for Langham to perform.
Faced with difficult material, the cast and creative team admirably presented a skilled, thoughtful, and layered rendition of this important and progressive piece of Canadian theatre.