GLASGOW patois and sisterly intuition translate into a powerful combination for the Lyceum’s revival of The Guid Sisters, writes Mark Fisher
If you’re thinking about casting any Scottish women in a show this season, you may want to think again. You’re likely to find them in short supply. Just look at the statistics. Opening this week at Dundee Rep is Sharman Macdonald’s She Town with an all-female cast of 44, nine of them professional. Meanwhile, at Perth Theatre, artistic director Rachel O’Riordan is in rehearsal with six women (and two token men) in a gender-reversed production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple opening at the end of the month.
And a further 15 women are getting gainful employment in Edinburgh as the National Theatre of Scotland joins forces with the Royal Lyceum for a major revival of The Guid Sisters. Kath Howden and Karen Dunbar are among the stars of this working-class Montreal comedy and they know from experience there is something special about working with an all-female ensemble.
For one thing, the banter is different. “The Guid Sisters is phenomenally written for women,” says Dunbar over breakfast in a Glasgow diner. “I’m reading it and I’m hearing my mother –”
“It’s written by somebody who’s been around women, it’s got the rhythms,” chips in Howden, realising that in interrupting Dunbar she is proving her own point. “When you get women together – we’re just doing this now – they’ll finish sentences, they’ll start before the other one’s finished … and I don’t think a group of men do that as much. It’s acceptable with women because –”
“– there’s so much conversation to be had,” continues Dunbar. “There’s so much affection and connection in the play. To butt in on somebody, to finish and interject, is a positive stroke –”
“– absolutely,” says Howden.
“– see, there we’re doing it,” laughs Dunbar. “That’s it just happening au naturel.”
Michel Tremblay’s play kicks off when Germaine Lauzon, played here by Howden, wins a million Green Shield stamps, the 1960s and 1970s equivalent of today’s Nectar points. Every time you made a purchase, you’d be given stamps with your change. These you would stick into books, which in turn, you could trade in for consumer products. Having won a million of them, Germaine has a lot of licking to do, which is why she invites round her extended female family (the French title, Les Belles-sœurs, translates as “the sisters-in-law”) for a book-filling party.
“It was a joy acting in a cast of six women,” says Howden, remembering her time in Sue Glover’s all-female Bondagers, as well as Des Dillon’s mainly female Six Black Candles. “I found we compromised much more. If you’re in a play where it is mostly men, you’ve got to try and get in there. You don’t want to take up the time because the boys think it’s their thing, so you play these games that I hate doing, but you find you have to do them.
“Women naturally compromise, so if you disagree with a woman, you say, ‘Oh right, I see your point’. It’s an easier way of getting there, rather than going, ‘I’ll go right round there in order to get there because of his ego’. With women, you argue the same – it’s not like it’s all nice – but I just think you’re able to see other people’s point of view and there’s not a big thing of saying you’re wrong. It’s different egos.”
It isn’t only the performers who notice the difference with an all-female cast. Audiences, too, respond to the particular energy generated by 15 women on stage. It’s part of the reason the play has proved so phenomenally successful and, on its debut, even incendiary. When it opened in Montreal in 1968, it caused a sensation. The conservative, male-centred, Catholic society of the day was not accustomed to seeing the lives of working-class women dramatised in this way.
Neither were people prepared for the language Tremblay used. Instead of the polite and very artificial French that was standard in film and theatre at the time, the playwright drew on Montreal’s joual dialect, something richer, rougher and more real. It proved tremendously controversial – one critic called his choice of dialogue “simply disgusting” – but also revolutionary. French-Canadian theatre would never be the same again.
Two decades later, the play was a sensation for a second time when it was translated by Martin Bowman and the late Bill Findlay into Scots. Unlike previous translators, who had used a bland and generic North American English, they realised Tremblay’s joual would find its match in the tenement patois of Glasgow. Turning Les Belles-sœurs into The Guid Sisters, they found themselves with a runaway hit when Michael Boyd directed it for Glasgow’s Tron in 1989. So successful was this production that it toured to Toronto and Montreal where English-speaking Canadians suddenly under-stood what they’d been missing.
It set in motion a love affair between Scotland and Tremblay, consummated in acclaimed productions including The House Among the Stars, Solemn Mass for a Full Moon in Summer, and If Only – all translated by Bowman and Findlay.
What these plays share is not only a vibrant linguistic energy, but a tremendous sense of theatricality. “It’s not that I don’t like realistic theatre,” says Tremblay, now 70. “It’s OK when I see a very good American play. But what I don’t like about theatre is people who are trying to make you believe that what you see is true. To avoid that, there is something in most of my plays that is telling you all the way through that you are looking at a show. In Les Belles-sœurs it’s the choruses and the monologues. If you close your eyes, what you hear is realistic, but if you look at the stage, it’s not.”
Ill health means he now rarely sees productions of his own work, but he knows the NTS/Royal Lyceum production is in safe hands, with his compatriot Serge Denoncourt as director.
“He loves the play very much,” says Tremblay. “It’s his fourth production. I saw two; one in Quebec City and one in Montreal. His last production in 2003, the play’s 35th anniversary, was amazing. He’s wonderful.”
• The Guid Sisters is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 21 September until 13 October; and King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 23–27 October.