Bilan at Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, Nov. 13 to Dec. 8, 2018
Les Beaux Dimanches at La Chapelle, Dec. 6 to 15, 2018
Two Marcel Dubé revivals played in Montreal almost concurrently recently, with Benoît Vermeulen directing a 50th anniversary production of Bilan at Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, and director Christian Lapointe collaborating with National Theatre School class of 2018 students for a reinvention of the 1965 play, Les Beaux dimanches, at La Chapelle.
Both productions used remarkably similar stage language in their strategies to keep Dubé, who died in 2016, relevant for our times. Both used Greek chorus-style DJs to comment on the action; both referenced the TV versions of the plays; and, to get really specific, both had a moment when a character walks on surreally wearing a full head mask — a glitterball in the case of Beaux dimanches, a Godzilla mask in Bilan’s case.
Godzilla also gets some screen time in Bilan: scenes of him laying waste to a city are projected onto an overhead triptych, along with nostalgic images of 1960s Quebec and video portraits of the main players recorded on stage by tablets. The Godzilla reference seems to be to imply that William Larose (Guy Jodoin), the antihero businessman who fancies himself as Duplessis redux, is gleefully laying waste to the gains of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution (the play was televised at the birth of the Revolution, and first adapted for TNM’s stage in 1968).
Bilan remains an enjoyably old-fashioned play about boardroom and bedroom venality, with William, a kind of corporate King Lear attempting to control his three unruly grown-up children (Mickaël Gouin, Rachel Graton and Jonathan Morier). Rather than relinquishing power, he’s hoping to expand it into politics by becoming a major player in the forces of reaction against what he sees as the decay of good old fashioned conservative values. The rot, though, has set in, and William sees his empire crumble along with his sham of a marriage: his pill-popping wife Margot (Sylvie Léonard) still harbours feelings for William’s old army pal and business colleague Gaston (Philippe Cousineau). There’s also a pivotal death in the family, which leads to the youngest characters, hitherto seen as the best hope for a way out of a stagnant present, haunting the stage as if from a far off future (circa 2018).
Vermeulen emphasizes the plays three-act structure by splitting the evening into three distinct styles: the first, an extended party scene, sees all the players amusingly dancing their way on and off the stage; the second mimics a recording studio, reminding us not only of the play’s televisual beginnings but also acknowledging, and maybe sending up, some of the soap opera developments in this section (big revelations, unexpected tragedies, sexual machinations, etc); and the final act is set in a kind of existential no-man’s-land, with characters adrift in a smoky waystation to that uncertain future.
A Dubé revival, or at least a testing of his continuing relevance, has been on the cards since his passing two years ago. Bilan doesn’t quite stand the test of time. It’s an overwrought and not very subtle tale of a mouthy self-made-man elbowing his way through life seems stuck in the era of Room at the Top and the kind of corporate melodramas the BBC used to churn out in the 60s and 70s. But it does provide for some enjoyably old fashioned meaty drama and this eclectic, if sometimes technical effects-heavy production does manage to blow off some of that 1960s mustiness.
New Montreal company Collectif Quatorze 18 (whose brief is to reinvent classic Quebecois plays) go even further in attempting to reclaim Dubé for a modern audience, with its cast of eleven recent National Theatre School students playfully bouncing off the dialogue rather committing to delivering it naturalistically. It’s played in what seems to represent an empty swimming pool presided over by a DJ, all the players wearing numbered sports tops, the numbers corresponding to the characters’ age). The sports reference extends to penalties being dealt out (cue klaxon and red light) every time someone makes a misogynistic remark or racist joke.
At first, the 2-hours-plus playing time looks as though it’s going to stretch far and tediously into the night, as each of the actors sardonically distance themselves so much from the meaning of each line they threaten to become unmoored from the source material completely (the play is about several bored suburbanites trying to get through an after-party Sunday).
But Christian Lapointe, a strikingly inventive director (as anyone who caught his Pélleas et Mélisande at TNM can testify), builds up layer upon layer of meaning so that we gradually get to Dubé’s melancholy vision of Quebec society at a crossroads by a completely different route.
The performances are choreographed almost like interpretive dance, with patterns of synchorinsed gestures becoming more and more complex throughout the evening (mirroring, perhaps, Artaud’s systems of gestures: Lapointe read aloud Artaud’s complete works in a heroic days-long endurance test during 2015’s Festival TransAmériques)
As well as Dubé’s play, the cast reads extracts from his unpublished writings, some of which are profoundly powerful meditations on the morality or otherwise of armed resistance as the Quiet Revolution became more noisily confrontational.
Neither this production nor TNM’s are completely persuasive that Dubé is about to get his place reclaimed in Quebec’s contemporary repertoire. But they’re both interesting, clever experiments which provide a fascinating insight into the style, sensibilities and concerns of Québécoise theatre before Michel Tremblay came along and changed everything.