A woman with a sexual appetite. Imagine that.
In her stage adaptation of Douglas Glover’s novel, Elle, Severn Thompson plays a woman who has, amazingly, been drawn from history. In 1542, Marguerite de la Rocque de Roberval took a lover while she was on a voyage from France to Canada. Her uncle, the French general who was in charge of the colonial expedition, decided that an appropriate punishment for Marguerite’s lechery would be to abandon her on the Isle of Demons, just off the coast of Newfoundland. Marguerite’s lover and her nurse were unlucky enough to be deposited on the island with her. According to historical documents, Marguerite survived two winters and returned to France.
As if that starting point weren’t already thrilling enough, Glover and Thompson have wrought a magical realist telling of Marguerite’s story in which they explore—poetically and with great humour—themes of female sexuality, colonialism, and our spiritual relationship to nature. As Marguerite struggles for survival, killing birds and eating books, as she starves and hallucinates, as she rubs up against First Nations cultures and experiences the pull of a different world view, the shadow sides of patriarchy and colonialism gain force. Marguerite’s femaleness, her untamable libido, the relentless beauty of the wilderness, and her growing understanding of the fluid relationship between humans and animals, between waking reality and dreams; all of this pulls Marguerite apart and reshapes her. She has heard, vaguely, of a First Nations god, whose help she solicits—at a price. “One god guarantees my faith is true,” she says. “Two makes it a joke.” Marguerite begins to turn into a bear. “You cannot inhabit,” she says, “without being inhabited.”
The play’s language is as rich as its ideas—and it’s unpretentious. The fog off the coast is “as thick and oily as fleece.” “The smell of this new world is so fresh it has almost no smell at all.” And I mentioned humour. When Marguerite sees human footprints in the snow, she says, “A man was here. And now he is gone. I am suddenly not dead. It feels like a social life.”
Under Christine Brubaker’s direction, the theatrical vocabulary in this Theatre Passe Muraille production is sumptuous. Designer Jennifer Goodman offers metal scaffolding that echoes the hull of a ship. But the main element is a huge swath of fabric that becomes everything from a ship’s sail to a shelter to a wild animal. And, in its most stunning use, the fabric allows Marguerite herself to take on animal form. Goodman’s lighting is gorgeous—from the way it breathes at the beginning to its sudden drop into an underwater world.
Thompson, who performs the show with the very able Jonathan Fisher, is a force. The strength and frankness of her speaking voice provides the perfect vehicle for the expression of Marguerite’s erotic power, her instinctual aliveness. There’s plenty of intelligence in Thompson’s delivery and, more compellingly, utter simplicity; she speaks and acts without adornment. Her characterization is pure curiosity.
When I saw Elle on the second night of its Vancouver run, the audience was small but deliriously appreciative. Do yourself a favour, Vancouver: pack this show out. It’s the real thing.
ELLE Adapted by Severn Thompson from the novel by Douglas Glover. Directed by Christine Brubaker. A Theatre Passe Muraille production at the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, February 9. Continues until February 18.
For tickets, phone 604-6898-0926 or go to www.firehallartscentre.ca