This piece by the National Theatre of Scotland is the result of an odd production process. The play in its original form was first performed as contemporary social commentary in 1968 Montreal. This version relocates the drama to 1960s Glasgow, where it was first performed in 1989. This new performance in 2012 Edinburgh seems to add another layer of remove, and what apparently started out as fresh, original and shocking drama appears here as distant, dated and historical.
The controversy of Michel Tremblay’s original came from his decision to write in joual, the working class dialect of Montreal, and it was this interest in giving a platform to a working class dialect that prompted Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman’s Scots translation. Their version was celebrated for bringing the language closer to the original than earlier translations in Standard English.
The play itself deals with 15 working class Catholic women, made up of a group of sisters, their children and their friends and neighbours, as they live in a close community in a 1960s Glasgow tenement. In this production the large cast appears unruly and the staging is at times a little awkward. The excessive use of spotlighting does little to ease the sense that there are too many people on stage with too little purpose.
The drama is set over one evening, at a party hosted by Germaine Lauzon, who has won a million Green Shield stamps and calls on the help of the other women to stick them into books. Over the course of the evening we hear the trials, tribulations and tragic personal histories of the individuals assembled, spliced with the jokes and bickering that hold the group together.
The idea that this production gives a voice to working class experience makes me quite uncomfortable. Though perhaps it’s harsh to blame this production for the ubiquitously damaging notion that a voice can be ‘given’ by any individual or demographic to another. That’s not to say that there is no point in trying to render a particular dialect or way of life, but I think it’s important to question what is happening when we laugh at a woman gleefully anticipating purchasing ‘an artificial nylon carpet’.
It may seem innocuous to laugh at an individual who is cheerfully unaware of what objects have and have not entered a particular social group’s shared idea of ‘bad taste’. In fact, it may be the very innocuousness of it that I have a problem with. It’s all very safe. We’re laughing because we all know better! She doesn’t know better because she doesn’t have the money to afford better. We’re laughing at her because she’s poor. Which is fine, but let’s not act like it’s empathetic.
This production seems to want to be a kitchen sink drama by way of a light-hearted comedy, the result of which is a very uneven handling of the issues it ‘deals with’: domestic violence to the elderly and infirm is treated as a source of hilarity, while the topic of abortion is greeted with sombre meditative tones.
This production levels a lot of wild allegations at working class communities, some of them unfair and some of them downright absolutely inaccurate. I found it very frustrating to watch one of the women physically abuse her disabled mother-in-law and complain bitterly about her duties as a carer while the other women hailed her ‘a saint’. I resent the implication that working class people are inept at caring for their sick when caring for society’s sick has historically been a function performed almost exclusively by the working class.
I am not so much offended as bored by the notion that working class experience is characterised by a cycle of toil and resentment, the only relief from which is provided by television and bingo. It’s boring because it feels like nothing more than a nod to tired stereotypes that function to affirm the comfortable distance between a predominantly middle class audience and the caricatures they see on stage.
It’s also boring because it feeds the equally reductive notion of middle class experience as characterised by a cycle of snobbery and guilt, the only relief from which is provided by theatrical forays into the world of the other half.