Theatre preview: Indyrefs in Quebec and Scotland inspired family drama First Snow

The title comes from a memory that has haunted the show's leading actor, Quebecois stage and screen star Isabelle Vincent, for more than two decades. Back in 1995, just after the second Quebec independence referendum '“ which, like the first one 15 years earlier, ended in a 'no' vote '“ she was walking through Montreal with her baby son in his push-chair, when snow began to fall, unseasonably early in the year. She thought that it could be the beginning of a long winter, for those who had hoped for a new beginning for Quebec; and now, her memory of that moment forms part of First Snow/Première Neige, a new co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and two Montreal-based companies '“ Theatre PAP and Hotel-Motel '“ which will appear during this year's Edinburgh Fringe, at the hugely successful Canada Hub at the King's Hall.

Rehearsals for First Snow PIC: Bruno Guérin
Rehearsals for First Snow PIC: Bruno Guérin

“The project began when the former NTS director Laurie Sansom came to Montreal in the winter of 2013-14,” says Quebecois writer Philippe Ducros, one of the show’s three co-authors, and artistic director of Hotel-Motel, a company whose name reflects the history of global travel – often to war zones including the Middle East and Central Africa – that informs his work. “With the Scottish independence referendum about to take place that year, he was interested in our experience of those two independence votes; so he invited me, and the director Patrice Dubois from Theatre PAP, and other artists, to come to Scotland for the last part of the referendum campaign in September 2014, and to begin some work with Scottish artists on a possible show about the experience.”

When the Quebecois team arrived in Scotland, the NTS was in the middle of an intense year of activity around the referendum campaign, ranging from its Scotland-wide Five Minute Play event in June 2014, through its Dear Scotland show at the National Portrait Gallery, to Rona Munro’s James Plays at the Edinburgh International Festival, and the NTS’s unique eve-of-referendum Blabbermouth event at the Assembly Hall, in which people from all walks of life contributed a song, story or reading to capture the moment. “We took part in that,” says Philippe Ducros. “And by then, some of us were really beginning to relive some of the feelings of hope we had, back

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in 1995. Then, of course, it was another ‘no’, and we relived that feeling, too.”

If the writers and artists of Scotland and Quebec tended – in the majority – to lean towards the “yes” side in their respective votes, though, the process of creating First Snow/Première Neige has produced something far removed from a simple piece of agitprop for one side or the other. Instead, it combines a fictional family story with the personal memories of the six actors involved – whose characters all carry the actors’ own names – to create a meditation on the impulses that lie beneath the surface of votes like these; notions of sovereignty and autonomy both personal and national, and ideas about how we retain a sense of collective hope, without entering into the kind of communal politics that can become racist, exclusive and violent.

“It’s been a very interesting creative process,” says Glasgow-based writer and director Davey Anderson, who with Linda McLean is one of the show’s two Scottish co-authors. “Right from the start, we all just sat in a room together and began work on some ideas; and that self-organisation has continued all the way. Then when Linda and Philippe and I started to write, we’d just be Skyping and talking and meeting as often as we could, each of us taking one strand of the story and working on it, then bringing it back to the others. And now of course, we’re in rehearsal in Montreal with the actors, who are making a major contribution to the text – so it’s still changing and being re-written, every day.”

First Snow/Première Neige tells the story of an older woman, Isabelle, whose family descend on their ancestral home to discuss what to do with the place, and with her. Predictably, the family cannot agree, about either the past or the future; and not for the first time, since Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman began back in the 1980s to make Scots vernacular translations of the plays of the great Montreal writer Michel Tremblay, the parallels between recent Scottish and Quebecois experience are striking, despite many obvious differences.

“I think there is a shared sense that political disagreements like these are like a family argument,” says Dave Anderson. “There’s the struggle to see the other side of the question, and to find ways of continuing to live together, after we’ve been so deeply divided. And of course, when it comes to ideas of sovereignty and autonomy, we’ve also had to deal with the experience of having that language hijacked – or that’s how it sometimes feels – by people from a very different part of the political spectrum, in the Brexit debate.

“One of the questions that has emerged most strongly from the process, though, is the one about how we continue to have political hope in these times, and after such upheavals. Isabelle Vincent says that she remembers that moment in the snow because, just briefly, she experienced the feeling of completely giving up hope, and she was scared by that feeling.

So in watching the show, I’d like audiences to feel sadness, yes, and a sense of connection in sharing an experience that has affected both Scotland and Quebec so deeply. But I’d also like it to help reawaken people’s feelings of ambition and desire; not to be numbed by everything that’s happened, but to be fully aware of it – and possibly to see how we can begin to move on.”

First Snow/Première Neige is at the Canada Hub, King’s Hall, 1-26 August, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.