Edinburgh Fringe 2014
Stellar Quines Productions
Venue: Traverse Theatre (venue 15)
A woman’s reflections on her family history in rural Canada and the pain that lives through generations.
Jennifer Tremblay is a French Canadian poet, author and playwright and her play The Carousel receives its English language premiere here as part of the Traverse’s fringe season. Maureen Beattie excels in this one-woman show and this recommendation to see it is based on her performance which explores this complex tapestry of a text with subtlety and depth. She is particular powerful when realising the voices of children and teenagers, and drawing out the wry humour of the script.
The narrator (we never learn her name) has been brought up by her mother Florence and grandmother Marie who both were shaped, and damaged, by a tough farming life and in particular by the larger than life patriarch, Emeliene. As a child the narrator is both drawn to and fearful of her grandfather, torn in loyalties between the alcoholic grandmother and charismatic husband. Florence’s rough childhood has left questions for the narrator, not understanding why her mother has been treated so badly. Perhaps inevitably Florence makes a disastrous marriage to Charles but once again the child finds much to love in her wayward, drunken father.
As an adult the narrator appears to have successfully broken the pattern of destructive behaviour, demonstrating an immense capacity for love to her own sons, but she too has to fight demons.
At times it is a little hard to keep up with the rapid change in character and shifts in time and although Beattie works hard to create unique characters the script is a rollercoaster of a ride. Perhaps the physicality of the characters needs some attention but these are early days in the life of the production and the different voices will go stronger with time.
Traverse two is a claustrophobic venue, down (and up) many steps and well suited to this piece which is in part about trying to escape a smothering family dynamic. The audience sit on three sides, peering through the haze at a mirrored floor and backdrop of representational pieces from the narrator’s story. To one side is a 3-D model of a stretch of the highway, the only route of escape from the family farm on an isolated bank of the St Lawrence river, complete with blood smeared tarmac (road kill features extensively in the family history). The set, designed by John Byrne, is a very literal interpretation of events and although rather an interesting work of art in its own right it is too busy – competing with rather than complementing the acting.
An elaborate lighting design (Jeanine Byrne) and full soundscape (Philip Pinsky) are used to reinforce the narration. Again they are technically excellent but they, and the set, leave nothing to the audience imagination and undermine Beattie’s strong performance rather than support it. The text is a poetic, rolling narrative which darts about the family history weaving a story of three generations of French migrants. The audience need to be left alone to make their own pictures and participate in the experience without signposts. The text should stand or fall on its own merits and the technical elements support, rather than detract from, the actor.
The second weakness of this production is that it doesn’t add up to a play; there is scant story here. The narrator is too much an everywoman, the themes (abuse, domestic violence, sexual exploration and motherhood) too universal. An individual character does not emerge from the writing, despite its beauty, and at the end one is left thinking ‘so what’?
The strength of this piece is Beattie’s performance and the poetry of Tremblay’s language. She creates many evocative moments – funny, bittersweet, violent, exciting, and sad – and Beattie succeeds in breathing life into them all.