Bonjour, là, bonjour's beyond-dysfunctional family raises dark questions today
By Michel Tremblay. Directed by Gilles Poulin-Denis. A Théâtre la Seizième production. At Studio 16 on Tuesday, February 28. Continues until March 11
And you thought your family was dysfunctional! Bonjour, là, bonjour shows a young man claiming himself from his kin—but it’s not your typical coming-of-age story. This excellent production is likely to inspire fierce postshow discussion.
Michel Tremblay’s 1974 script (revised in 1986) is a symphony of overlapping voices, as Serge’s family welcomes him back from a three-month visit to Europe. His separate visits to his father, aunts, and four older sisters are piled on top of each other in time and space, amplifying the extent to which everyone else seems to need something from him.
Serge’s retired father, Armand, lives with his own two perpetually dissatisfied sisters, Gilberte and Charlotte. Serge’s oldest sister, Lucienne, has married an Anglo doctor, but is so bored with her material wealth that she’s taken a younger lover. Sisters Monique and Denise both seek relief from their loveless marriages, one in pills, the other in food. Read no further if you don’t want to know the play’s big secret, but chances are you could figure it out just from reading a listing. The only happy sister is Nicole, and that’s because she and Serge are unapologetically in love with each other. Determined to escape from the fug of disappointment that surrounds everyone else in the family, Serge and Nicole commit to their incestuous relationship.
The play’s celebration of incest was taboo-shattering in 1974, but in 2017, it’s just perplexing. How are we meant to take this? Is it an allegory for other forms of forbidden love—less forbidden now than they were 40 years ago? It’s also hard not to feel uneasy about the fact that three of Serge’s sisters overtly treat him as a sexual object, and that almost all of the play’s female characters are harpies from whom the men need to be rescued. Sure, the play is billed as a tragedy, but if Serge is the tragic hero, it’s hard not to read this as misogynistic.
That said, there are great pleasures to be had in director Gilles Poulin-Denis’s staging. Tremblay’s characters are richly textured, and this terrific cast skillfully handles the script’s rapid-fire overlapping dialogue while mining the bleak humour of their situation. With her tightly coiled hauteur, Lyne Barnabé’s Lucienne is riveting, as is Émilie Leclerc’s limply desperate Monique. Thérèse Champagne finds the comic rhythms of Charlotte’s self-pity, and Joey Lespérance is a deeply grounded Armand; his recollection of hearing his children’s voices for the first time is one of the show’s most affecting moments.
Drew Facey’s expressionistic set, with its fading wallpaper and an upstage tower of chairs, evokes the drab, oppressive stasis of the characters’ lives, and his costumes are period-perfect. Jeremy Baxter’s lighting and Poulin-Denis's sound enhance the claustrophobic atmosphere.
I’m grateful for this opportunity to see a classic done well—and to ask questions about what it might mean to us today.