“There is nothing in the world I like more than bingo!” It seems like a mundane sentiment, but I invite anyone to sit before the cast of Les Belles Soeurs and listen to them talk, as one, about how much bingo means to them, without beginning to feel the desperate drama of the ordinary women Michel Tremblay brought to life on the stage.
The year is 1965. Germaine Lauzon, middle-aged housewife, has hit the jackpot. She can literally thank her lucky stars because a million of them (in coupon form) have turned up in boxes at her Plateau-Mont-Royal house as a competition prize. Unfortunately, before she can trade them in for the latest domestic luxuries that she has been eyeing up in a catalogue, she needs them stuck into booklets. Inconsiderate of the pent-up jealousy they harbour, she invites her sisters and friends over to help her with the task. With close to 15 housewives in the same room, and her daughter’s friends dropping by, gossip runs free and emotions high. Pretty soon the helpers start to become thieves.
First performed in the late 1960s, Les Belles Soeurs shocked Quebec audiences with its kitchen-sink depiction of ordinary women with hopes, fears, and bad language. 40 years on, it remains perhaps Michel Tremblay’s most famous work, and is now being performed by McGill’s own Players’ Theatre. Les Belles Soeurs is famous as one of the first plays to use joual, a traditional Quebecois dialect and a central part of working class culture that for a long time had only been the subject of scorn rather than celebration. It is hard not to conclude that the English translation sacrifices much of its local identity. Indeed, the director, Stephanie Zidel, admits that “the language doesn’t translate effectively into metropolitan English.” Were it not for the god-damn-it-we’re-in-Quebec-Fleur-de-Lis-wallpaper painted onto the set you might struggle to identify exactly where in North America we are living. But this loss in specifics reveals the universal nature of the characters and their struggle.
The drama itself really takes off when all the women are together and begin to bounce off one another. Pretty soon they are letting each other know exactly what they think of the Italian girl down the street, exchanging rape jokes, and complaining about men in their lives. The verbal violence turns inward as dissatisfaction pours out, and soon the darkness of repressed lives and despondency are revealed. We see how the women become their own torturers. A play which, at the time, portrayed life unflinchingly, now,serves to remind us of the importance of what has changed. The horror at the revelation that the Angeline has found happiness attending a nightclub would be funny, were it not for how it kills her to turn her back on it in order to keep her oldest friend.
This seems to have been a passion project for Zidel, and she certainly handled the challenge, keeping the action focused with a large cast all on stage at once. Among an accomplished cast, Connor Spencer stood out, bringing seething jealous energy to the stage. The refrain, “I kill myself for my pack of morons,” which she spits out, leaves you with a clear impression of how these women have come to regard their own families.
Whether or not the humour saves the drama from bleakness will remain unclear until this production arrives in front of its audience. Indeed, the student audience who will be receiving it are far removed from the women the play set out to portray and the audience it was originally written for. “I think there [are] a lot of things we might find scandalizing that they might have found funny,” suggests Zidel. Still, many of the challenges remain accessible to today’s audiences: “If your friend comes up to you and says she’s pregnant, that’s something that is still hard to deal with.” Whether audiences remain to be scandalized or not, Les Belles Soeurs is a powerful piece of theatre.