On bended knees, Maureen Beattie glows in the spotlight. She’s become a child, with her proportions shifted so that her short red dress hides her legs and becomes a long gown, but her stiff shoulders retain the intensity of prayer. When she rises, she’s this child’s mother, then her future daughter. These bewildering transitions between three generations populate Canadian writer Jennifer Tremblay’s lyrical, shifting one woman show.
The successor to award-winning 2012 production The List, this work is translated from French by Shelley Tepperman, and transposed into Beattie’s Scottish dialect – her voice adding, with Paris, a second point of comparison to understand the sparse and unfamiliar landscape of Quebec by.
Tremblay’s text centres on the contrasts between domesticity and a need for adventure – between the warm safety of the home and the enticing wildness of the Quebec landscape outside it. These contrasts are emphasised by the repeated, agonising image of the gates closing behind a child as she enters a convent, shut out from both warmth and wildness. It’s an emblem of the now-passed away grandmother Marie’s decision to place her five-year-old daughter in the cold care of Catholic nuns while her brothers stay at home. She’s only allowed back for a bare few days at Christmas, and not visited even when she’s operated on in hospital. But twenty-odd years on, Marie indulges her granddaughter with French sweets, baking, and the run of her glamorous wardrobe.
Beattie is a compelling performer. She has a solid, open presence that lends itself equally to childish delight, whirling in high heels, or anguished desperation. Her narrative of a wild, saddle-less horse ride as a small child is breathless and frightening – impossible not to get swept up along with her. She’s strong on motherly sternness, too, but less adept at finding the softness and self-doubt of young womanhood as the youngest of the three women. Still, her present-day character’s discoveries about the past are genuinely shocking – enough so to shake off any accusation of sentimentality or nostalgia for the richly complex remembered worlds that are built here.
This is a dense interpretation of a dense text. It demands close concentration to identify Beattie as she shifts between characters and eras. And there are also a whole cast of unseen husbands and sons and friends to keep track of, recurring through the bare hour like those acquaintances you meet and half-forget annually at weddings or parties.
Still, this difficult whirl is one that’s central to Tremblay’s artistry. Like the carousel rides which segment the text, the same faces come round and round again, and patterns repeat. Keeping up with this ornately structured play is dizzying, but resolves in a justifying surge of euphoric joy.