Edinburgh Fringe 2018
A family gathering in Quebec unleashes repressed tensions and provokes debate around cultural identity, language and power in light of Scottish and Québécois nationalism in this engaging piece of collaborative new writing.
Somewhere in rural Quebec Isabelle has asked her relatives to gather back in the old family home she still shares with her grown-up adopted son, François. Each family member has their own idea about why she’s summoned them and what she’s going to tell them and as they gather under one roof for the first time in many years, repressed family tensions and old arguments begin to surface.
But what seems at first like a family drama emerges into something much more. These family discussions move between the house itself and a painting of Isabelle’s into issues of language, politics, identity, power and environmentalism and, in particular, comparisons between the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland and those that took place in Quebec in 1980 and 1995.
While these subjects are discussed among the family, one by one the actors, who bear the same names as the characters, step out to tell the audience a little of their own story and how that has influenced their views, so that the line between the character and the actor, the play and real life becomes increasingly blurred.
Conversation switches between French and English, with a sometimes tongue in cheek translation projected above the stage or provided by another cast member, often Isabelle’s curmudgeonly brother, Harry. While the family is French speaking, right-wing Harry now prefers English and seems reluctant to speak in French, which allows him not only to be a unionist counterpoint to the nationalist views of the others but also a linguistic bridge between the French and the English speakers at the gathering, Isabelle’s Scottish best friend and her daughter Zoe’s Congolese-Scottish boyfriend, Thierry.
It’s a clever script that offers and few twists and turns along the way and there are strong performances all round. Isabelle Vincent sparkles in the lead role, while Harry Standjofski is almost a pantomime villain.
These are complemented by Karen Tennant’s simple set of mismatched chairs, which move around suggesting sometimes one room, sometimes multiple rooms in the house, while soft lighting gives the impression of intimacy. Sound, too, is used sparsely and effectively. Throughout the play the sound of crows cawing serves as a both setting and a repeat motif, along with occasional snippets of song by the cast.
Produced in collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland and two Québécois theatre companies, Théâtre PÀP and Productions Hôtel-Motel, First Snow / Première neige dissects the aftermath of a no vote for independence, with all the disappointment that being on the wrong side of the result holds, as viewed from both sides of the Atlantic. But while there is a clear pro-independence slant, it is by no means simplistic in its answers and rather holds assumptions up to the light, raising some uncomfortable questions about the nature of colonialism, victimhood, power and choice.
Far from navel-gazing, the joyous bilingual, cross-cultural collaboration between Davey Anderson, Philippe Ducros and Linda McLean seems to have resulted in something that is more challenging and more comprehensive than might have created separately. Ironically, given the theme, First Snow / Première neige is perhaps proof that we are, in fact, better together – at least when it comes to theatre.