The key to unlocking this play can be found in its title—First Snow or Première Neige. But it isn’t the meaning of the words that’s important. It’s the doubling. The duality of French and English. Of Québec and Scotland. Of independence and dependence. Of theatre and real life.
First Snow maps the history of Québec’s failed referendums of 1980 and 1885 onto the equally unsuccessful Scottish independence referendum of 2014. This mapping is carefully crafted using a double framing device. There’s the narrative of the play, in which Isabelle calls together her dispersed family for a reunion in Québec where they must collectively decide what to do with the family home. Then there’s the narrative of the actors who portray the characters in the play. At intervals throughout, the lighting changes, glows with a yellow tinge, as the actors reflect on their reasons for creating the play, namely the relationship between the failed referendums of Scotland and Québec.
In this, I found watching First Snow like reading War & Peace, where the drama of the play is war and the true story of the actors is peace (regardless of whether these true stories are actually true)—I’m always itching for Tolstoy to hurry up and get back to the peace bits as they’re infinitely more entertaining than the war bits. I suppose that’s part of the genius of Tolstoy, though. Here, the comparison doesn’t stand as strong.
A yet further layer of doubling derives from language, in that First Snow is performed as much in French as in English. Although most of the French lines are translated via surtitles, not everything is. As a fluent French speaker, I had no problem with constant rocketing back and forth between languages, but I can see how it might have been somewhat alienating for the non-French speakers in the audience.
‘You could see both points of view. I didn’t trust you’, says Québecoise Isabelle to her long-time Scottish friend, Fletcher, during one scene. Here, thus, the moral of the drama. Although heavy-handed in its analogy of a family deciding what to do with its ancestral home with a nation deciding what to do with its ancestral land, First Snow argues that, during any such discussions, representation from all sides is necessary at the negotiating table. Native sons and daughters, adopted children, immigrants, expats, even, gasp, conservatives. Although it’s easy to assume that First Snow is attempting to represent all points of view without claiming any as its own, in reality, it’s key argument is insisting on the necessity of diversity when it comes to making decisions about the fate of one’s country.
First Snow/Première Neige was on at Canada Hub, Summerhall, as part of the 2018 Edinburgh fringe. More info here.