ELLE—the stage adaptation of Douglas Glover’s Governor General's Award-winning novel—is a dark but, ultimately, celebratory tale of female perseverance in the face of crushing social and environmental forces. It’s a classic survival narrative made unconventional by its unflinching portrayal of female sexuality, colonial brutality, and Indigenous folklore. Adapted by and starring Severn Thompson, the play is set in 1542 and follows Elle, a French noblewoman (based on Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, niece of Jean Francois de Roberval) who is marooned on the deserted Isle de Demons, just off the coast of Newfoundland. It’s a beautiful and harrowing look at early Canadian history, but with a mythic element that eclipses the historical narrative in the latter half of the show.
Playing Elle—who is something of an antihero, never without her flask—Thompson is a powerhouse from start to finish. Five minutes in and we see her energetically miming a sexcapade with her somewhat inadequate, tennis-obsessed lover, and from then on her energy (and healthy libido) hardly wavers. She delivers ninety minutes of vibrant, darkly funny text (it’s nearly a one-woman show) and though her character is desperately exhausted throughout, Thompson herself is not. Complimenting her performance is Jonathan Fisher, who plays the role of Itslk, an Indigenous man who helps Elle survive and, of course, provides some romantic affection.
In theory, the play’s format should not work. The script borrows largely from Glover’s original text, with Thompson vocalizing the first-person narration, and so there are instances in which the show feels more like a dramatized narration than a theatrical show—particularly towards the end, where myth, reality and hallucination become hard to distinguish without the intervention of secondary characters. Yet Thompson’s dramatic gusto is enough to keep the audience compelled and emotionally hooked throughout, and her scenes with Fisher (who wears an odd ensemble of mukluks, blue jeans, faux-leather sleeves and a fur vest) provide a refreshing change of pace.
About Fisher’s contradiction of a costume—is this a wink at the dual narratives (the Indigenous and the colonial) that inform the show, and Canada more generally? Perhaps this history-as-fashion approach is a bit too literal, though it does seem in line with the show's overall sense of self-awareness, its serious-but-not-too-serious look at our country's tumultuous beginning.
Overall, ELLE is funny, feisty and—yes!—feminist. Certainly a show worth seeing.
ELLE is playing from February 8-18 at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver. More info and tickets available at http://firehallartscentre.ca/
Mica Lemiski is a member of Room's editorial board.