From February 8 to 18, the Firehall Arts Centre brought Canadian production ELLE to the stage. The story was adapted from author Douglas Glover’s novel by lead actress Severn Thompson, and directed by Christine Brubaker in accordance with Theatre Passe Muraille. This work of fiction highlights the tribulations faced by Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval under the governance of her uncle, the Sieur de Roberval, whom she followed from France in 1542 as he attempted to colonize the New World. Glover recounts the unmerited journey of Marguerite (Elle) and her desertion on the Isle of Demons where she was condemned for pursuing sex as a young, unmarried woman. Although marooned on the island with her lover and a nurse to assist with her pregnancy, the piercing environment of the Northeastern Canadian coast eventually renders her the sole survivor. This is not the first time Thompson has adapted feminist literature for the stage; she previously co-created an autobiographical interpretation of China’s leading political woman, Madam Mao, which highlighted the pressures of her rule during the Cultural Revolution. ELLE successfully captured the multifaceted feminist issues outlined in Glover’s complex text, using a minimalist production and incorporating elements of comic relief. The integration of humour functioned as a coping mechanism for survival, and without it the production would have been rendered a dark, solution-less tragedy devaluing a woman’s livelihood.
The production began with Thompson motioning poses in a visual overview, symbolic of the tragedies Elle is set to endure: preparing for sexual indulgence, walking into exile, unexpected heartbreak, giving birth, and falling through ice. Each multi-coloured flash was separated by a swift, menacing blackout emphasizing the periodic distinction between the occurrences. This effect immediately instilled a sense of intrigue within the audience, who were now looking forward to the climactic unfolding of Elle’s story. Oblivious to the ghastly fate set to ensue, the audience was immediately drawn to Elle’s aura of rebellion and into the sometimes absurd representations of sex and adult relationships.
The play’s enactment of Elle’s sexual encounter with her lover was entirely comedic, prompting great bouts of laughter from the audience. But even this did not distract from the displays of serious hardship which immediately followed, and which stemmed from the gender expectations which took precedence over familial ties—the governor in charge of the voyage, and Elle’s uncle, had zero empathy for her situation and immediately sent her into exile. Naturally, this might’ve created a sense of discomfort amongst viewers. However, Elle auspiciously distracted from the element of shame through a streak of witty comments, finding humour in her exile. Despite the lingering murkiness in the story spurred from the inequality of the situation, it was impossible to contain your laughter as she persevered through witticism.
But near the end of the production, Elle was once again left on her own in hardship, during the birth of her child. Whether the baby was stillborn or died shortly after is slightly vague, but its death regardless seemed to be the breaking point of Elle’s stability. Elle cursed the misogynistic cruelty of her uncle, as well as her inauspicious fate. This was the darkest and most depressing moment in the production, which inevitably seeped into the audience, suspending all humour and optimism as Elle succumbed to her tragedy. Almost immediately, the aura in the room had shifted, as the audience was forced to face the severity of her situation without the opulence of farce. The weight of her issues perhaps evoked feelings of incompetence amongst viewers, who desperately wanted to help her but were unable to. Those few moments of vulnerability shed light on the austerity of what it meant to be a woman in the 16th century Western world. As much as we had fallen in love with Elle’s character, her charm distracted us from taking injustice at face value.
ELLE functioned as more than just an accurate autobiographical interpretation of an important historical figure; it was a performance that alluded to the power of bodily autonomy, and compelled a diverse audience to contemplate gender normalities and the power structures at play in shaping them both. The character of Elle was presented within a historical context—however, the story forced viewers to interpret her struggles through a contemporary political lens. It was evident that when the ability to laugh was omitted from the script entirely, an air of inescapable darkness followed suit. While these dark, humourless moments emphasized her oppressive environment, the significance of Thompson’s adaptation of ELLE lies in its lucrative testimony to the resilience and innate power of women attempting to survive patriarchal dominance.