By Michel Tremblay. Translated by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco. Directed by Diane Brown. A UBC Department of Theatre and Film production. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Friday, March 17. Continues until April 1
When a play catches up with you on the ride home and you can’t tell your tears from the rain on your windshield—well, that’s the power of Michel Tremblay’s award-winning script Les Belles-soeurs and UBC Theatre’s genuinely affecting production.
Written in 1965 and staged three years later, all during Quebec’s Quiet Revolution—a period of massive cultural upheaval as people turned away from the Roman Catholic Church amid sociopolitical and economic shifts—Les Belles-soeurs is Tremblay’s most popular and widely translated play, and it’s easy to understand why. Almost 50 years later, the text still feels incendiary and its subject matter groundbreaking. All 15 characters are women, they’re all deeply flawed, and it’s full of swear words and casual blasphemy.
The play opens on Germaine (Bronwyn Henderson) who has just won one million stamps. Not only can she redecorate her entire home from a popular catalogue, but she’s also the envy of all the women in her impoverished East Montreal neighbourhood (where Tremblay himself grew up). She invites her sisters and friends over for a stamp-licking party without any regard for their growing jealousy.
The group talk trash about each other and most of the other women in their parish, and it’s a master class in passive-aggressive insults and barbed taunts. Almost all of them burn with resentment for their children, husbands, and home lives. Consumed by thoughts of “Why her? Why not me?”, Germaine’s friends and sisters begin pocketing her stamps for themselves.
As the characters lash out, gossip, and hurl abuse at each other, most of the jokes fail to land. Instead, Act 1 is almost a nonstop shouting match and it’s kind of exhausting. But it’s also clever direction on the part of Ruby Slippers’ long-time artistic director Diane Brown, completing her MFA thesis here. Brown takes Tremblay’s text and ups the feminist ante. These characters are loud, shrill, and frequently unlikable. They’re also cruel, abusive, and trapped by society, the church, and gendered expectations of fulfillment.
By daring the audience to contend with behaviours that are sexist clichés, as well as stereotypical and antithetical characteristics of women, Brown sets up an Act 2 that is devastatingly real and raw, and her cast delivers beautifully. The bitterness that has hardened these women is borne directly from their suffocating oppression, a point that’s made all too real when the brash, short-fused Rose (Sarah Jane) opens up about what her marriage is really like. “Women are grabbed by the throat and they stay that way, right to the end,” she says.
It’s a declaration made all the more chilling by the fact that it feels almost as relevant now as it probably did 50 years ago.