The National Arts Centre’s English Theatre has produced an eclectic group of plays this season. They have run the gamut, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Waawaate Fobister’s coming-out story in Agokwe.
In the latest installment, artistic director Peter Hinton directs Michel Tremblay’s play Saint Carmen of the Main, which runs from March 16 to April 2.
Written in the 1970s and translated into English by Linda Gaboriau, Saint Carmen of the Main is the grande dame of Québécois nationalist sentiment. Hinton’s version, however, distances itself from political nostalgia.
“The play is so much about the politics of speaking in one’s own voice, about creating culture and telling stories of one’s own experience in one’s own language,” says Hinton. “It felt very relevant to where we are today in English Canada in terms of diversity, of culture in all of its expression.”
Tremblay wrote Saint Carmen of the Main in the style of Greek tragedy — a series of choral odes and episodes between protagonists. Hinton has honoured the style while bringing it into the 21st century.
“The chorus functions just like a chorus in the Greek tragedy, yet their references are modern, their myths are modern and their archetypes are modern. It’s in that collision of classical tradition, modern reference and modern idiom that makes it, I think, extremely unique,” says Hinton.
The chorus represents the people Carmen sings about, denizens of the Main, an old area in Montreal known for its drag queens, transsexuals and sex workers.
“The songs that Carmen sings are all stories of the people in the show, so in some ways you can run with it and imagine that the play that you are seeing is the song she is singing,” says Hinton.
As Hinton puts it, people need culture to “voice the expression of our love, our lives, our struggles, our beliefs. And that is what this play really looks at — is when people wake up and cultural revolutions take place, what do you do the next day?”
There are 14 actors in the chorus, who talk and move in unison.
“Finding the balance between individuality and unison is really very key,” says Hinton. “It’s a very challenging play to do because it looks very simplistic, it looks straightforward on the page, but mounting it is different. The chorus all speak in the past tense, which tells you that they know the outcome of the story before the protagonists do. It’s a classic Greek device but a tricky one.”
Regular NAC theatregoers will find a familiar cast, made up of actors from the English Theatre’s repertory company. Throughout the season they have played a range of characters. For instance, Karen Robinson, who played the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, plays a bull dyke in Saint Carmen of the Main.
“The whole purpose of an ensemble is working together over a whole period of time. People are braver in their choices and the exchange in the work is from a deeper place, so it’s really pleasurable as a director, too,” says Hinton.
“Tremblay is so great because his world is so rich,” he says. “You have the whole Greek world, Quebec itself inspired the play, and you have the whole world of Michel Tremblay, which is very unique and has its own demands and challenges.”