The Herald’s Neil Cooper interviews Quebecois writer Jennifer Tremblay on her trilogy of plays ahead of the run at the Edinburgh Fringe…
Tremblay’s accidental trilogy…
Jennifer Tremblay never intended to write a trilogy of plays. Only after the Quebecois-born novelist and playwright’s Herald Angel award-winning solo play The List became a hit did she even consider a sequel to its moving and poignant depiction of a woman coming to terms with life in the country, and the tragedy that results from the domestic creations she constructs to survive. Even then, Tremblay only wrote The Carousel after gauging some of the audience’s reaction to its predecessor.
“People always said that the woman in The List didn’t seem to like her children,” says Tremblay, through a translator, “but that wasn’t the intention of the play. Then as soon as I wrote The Carousel, because I’m obsessed with form, I knew there had to be a third play.”
The result of this is The Deliverance, a new work which receives its world premiere during this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe in an English translation by Shelly Tepperman, produced by Stellar Quines, the female focused Scottish theatre company with a long track record of producing Quebecois drama. This connection dates back to company co-founder and artistic director Muriel Romanes acting in the Tron Theatre’s touring production of The Guid Sisters, a Scots language version of a seminal play by Michel Tremblay (no relation).
Here Romanes reunites the team who produced both The List and The Carousel, with actress Maureen Beattie performing in all three plays, while John Byrne again designs, Jeanine Byrne provides lighting and Philip Pinsky sound. With audiences having the opportunity to see all three plays as part of the 2015 Made in Scotland Showcase, Tremblay reveals a complex dramatic portrait of a woman in crisis.
“The List came from a true story I heard about a neighbour when I was living in the countryside,” she explains. “After what happened, the whole village felt guilty about what they could have done to help, but I tried to capture all that guilt through the one character.”
In The Carousel, the same woman looks at her own past, ending as she prepares to visit her estranged mother. The Deliverance begins when she arrives, as the roots of their inter-familial conflict are gradually revealed.
“If The List is the head of the body of the three plays,” Tremblay says, “then The Carousel is very much the heart. With The Deliverance I very much wanted to write something more physical.”
Born in 1973, Tremblay wrote from an early age, and devised plays for friends before publishing a collection of poems while still a teenager. She had children at a young age, and after studying creative literature for a time, wrote extensively for children’s television and penned a novel which was turned down by twenty-two publishers before she founded her own press. Several children’s books followed, though it was only when The List won the Governor General’s prize in 2008 that her work really started to be noticed.
“Writing was always a way of living,” she says. “It was something really natural to me.”
The emotional rawness that pulses her plays are typical of many Quebecois writers, including Michel Tremblay and other writers such as Daniel Danis, whose work has also appeared in Scotland.
“I feel very much part of that tradition,” Tremblay says, “partly because of the work by Michel Tremblay and others, but for me it always starts off with something intimate and personal. It starts with a need and an instinct, and then I take things from there. I write for children a lot, so it’s different for me in that I use humour, but in Quebec a play often starts off with a lot of humour and then turns dark and sad.
“I’m still working out where that sadness comes from, but maybe it’s from the high number of suicides there are here, which is something that theatre probably reflects. In Quebec as well people recognise a relationship with nature that is really wild, and people who live among nature in that way are also really wild and quite primitive.”
Despite such emotional intensity, Tremblay acknowledges some of the differences between the Scottish and Quebecois productions of The List and The Carousel.
“In Quebec the plays aren’t regarded as a trilogy in the same way as they are in Scotland,” she says. “In Scotland as well The List lasted about fifteen minutes less than it did in Quebec. The rhythm was a lot faster, and that’s about the actors knowing what is required for the public. In Scotland the List wasn’t as a melancholy or as heavy as it was when it was done in Quebec, where audiences seem to need a little more time to absorb what is going on. When The List played in Avignon it was different again, where there was a musician onstage as well as an actor.”
In whatever country The List and The Carousel have played, they seem to have tapped into something that audiences can identify with.
“The List is about mothers and children,” Tremblay observes, “and a lot of women can recognise themselves in that situation. All women can relate to what happens in the play. All men who talk to me after seeing it as well can relate to it. They recognise their mother or their wife.”
With Tremblay currently making plans to perform an adaptation of a recent novel with a musician, she retains a fondness for Stellar Quines’ take on her work even as she already seems to have moved on from it.
“It’s a play about things that are very close to a lot of women’s experiences,” she says, “ and there’s something universal there that people can identify with.”
– Keith Bruce
Published Tuesday 21 July 2015 – heraldscotland.com