Michel Tremblay is best known as a political playwright. His 1965 play Les Belles Soeurs, revolutionized Canadian theatre. Written in joual, the Quebequoise working class vernacular, the play dramatized the lives of proletarian women in Montreal. The combination of language, unsentimental characterization, and political content was electric. It sparked public debate and inspired a generation of writers. Les Belles Soeurs is commonly regarded as "the single most important event in the history of Quebec theatre," (according to the production notes). Tremblay’s separatist politics and preference for portraying characters at the edge of society established his reputation as Canada’s most important dramatist. Since then he has gone on to write dozens of plays, several screenplays, some novels, film scripts, and even an opera (Nelligan, based on the life of the Quebec poet).
The first Irish production of Tremblay’s work turns out to be a most unusual choice. For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again is a tender, touching, and funny play exploring the relationship between author and his mother. It is a loving and very beautiful homage to the woman he credits for his artistic and personal inspiration. Though written with attention to detail in language and due care in the development of theme and character, the overall impression it makes is of a warm reminiscence. This is a far cry from what you would expect upon reading the man’s resume.
Des Cave (Barbaric Comedies) portrays Tremblay, narrator and participant in this story of his own life. Maria McDermottroe is his mother. In many senses, as the narrator points out in his opening address, she’s an everywoman that all will recognize: "You’ve seen her before, on stage, in the audience, in the street," we are told. Yet she is also very much a woman of her time and place. She is rooted in an identifiable experience of life (post-war Montreal) which is related to us through a series of vignettes that take place throughout the author’s life from age ten to twenty one (he wrote Les Belles Soeurs when he was twenty-three).
Each moment has an individual theme insofar as each defines a moment in the child’s life in a way which may not be immediately obvious. He learns the meaning of values such as honesty, courage, and loyalty, though usually at the end of a stern tongue lashing laced with doses of matriarchal guilt-tripping and sly humor. Each scene is heavily anecdotal, both in itself and insofar as the bulk of the dialogue is spoken by the mother, who has a tendency to exaggerate and tell stories which are mostly apocryphal or at least theatrical. Tremblay draws attention to the truths beneath the hyperbole though, and demonstrates how he learned all he knows about life and its representation from this woman.
It is a clever and engaging piece of writing which integrates form and discourse. It is as much a study of what the theatre means to Tremblay as how his mother inspired his life and work. He makes this explicit from the outset, beginning with the narrator’s opening tirade about the conventions of theatrical narrative and concluding with a moment in which ‘representation’ takes on a whole new meaning as the play shifts from realism to wish-fulfillment without jarring the audience.
Throughout the play, mother and son discuss writing, acting, storytelling, verisimilitude and characterization all amid supposedly ‘innocuous’ conversations about relatives, dinner parties, school recitals, and favorite books. It is little wonder that this child grew up to be a playwright. It is, in the end, a fitting and very appropriate homage to the author’s mother which perfectly complements his more contentious and didactic work. It explores and explains how he came to see the world in the way he did and honors the woman who ultimately (arguably indirectly) helped him to realize his dreams.
For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again is also a very moving and deeply personal work of theatre. Its depiction of the mother-son relationship is universal enough to speak to almost any audience, although it is also a truly beautiful tribute to this particular woman. The machinations of a long-suffering but deeply loving mother transcend national and linguistic barriers though, and frequently inspire peals of laughter and, eventually, tears. There may be a limit to just how much patience some people will have with all of the storytelling, but nothing that happens on stage does’t belong there on deeper structural and thematic levels.
Cave and McDermottroe work well together, although their accents are a peculiar mishmash of Canadian and Irish. It doesn’t really matter, but inevitably something of Tremblay’s theatre has been lost in translation in the first place, then lost again in performance abroad. McDermottroe carries most of the weight of the piece, but the interplay between the two actors is very well timed, bringing the play to life on human terms and preventing it from seeming like a collection of punctuated monologues. Director Gordon McCall makes good use of the stage space and few props to keep the action fluid, and designer Paul McCauley’s subtly surrealist set (with a mirror hanging eerily in space and two doorways framed by an interlocking wave pattern rather than straight lines) establishes sense of the environment which reinforces the impression that this is not ‘objective’ reality in the first place.