Theatre

A window in a bright corner

David Thomas July 21 1980
Theatre

A window in a bright corner

David Thomas July 21 1980

A window in a bright corner

Lennoxville cuddles in the bosomy folds of Quebec’s Eastern Town-ships, once a proper, white-clap-board colony of English-speaking settlers. Now, with its name gallicized to l’Estrie, the region has lost its purity in a licentious linguistic mixing which hears supper talk shift from English to French with the passing of the salt. In gracious, stiff-lipped surrender, the surviving anglophones maintain their picket fences and pine-panelled country inns and manage to remain a vibrant, contributing outpost of English Canada’s cultural hinterland. Meanwhile, behind their tidy titles and studied accents, there are in Ottawa and Quebec City fonctionnaires who treat the Townships’ bicultural vigor like an unwelcome aberration. While Lennoxville’s summer festival of Canadian theatre has established a respected place in the country’s arts calendar—its ninth season opened this month with three English-language plays—bureaucrats in both capitals are unplugging the lifesupport systems.

Despite the determination of organizers to attract French-speaking theatregoers, Quebec authorities refused this year to distribute festival publicity in provincial tourist offices. The reason? Because the brochure is bilingual and, to conform to Quebec language law, completely separate French and English versions are demanded. Provincial arts funding is down this year to $12,500, half the amount granted the year before the Parti Québécois rose to power. At least part of the problem is history, says festival founder and executive director David Rittenhouse: “There’s no major French summer theatre—it’s not part of their cultural no-

tions.” Federal patronage, too, is parsimonious: down from last year’s $100,000 to $75,000 while local French-language theatre funding went up as governments apply formulas based on local audience potential. “None of the normal numbers are going to work in a minority situation,” said Rittenhouse, staring across sun-sequined Lake Massawippi.

Encouragingly, moral support is coming from the region’s majority francophone society, including nearby Sher-

brooke’s professional Théâtre de l’Atelier, whose general manager, Michel Bernier, is promoting Festival Lennoxville to his own subscribers. Explains Bernier: “We want to develop taste for theatre and we can do so by going beyond the language lines—each of us could share at least part of the other’s clientele.” Bernier, whose government grants have increased, says Festival Lennoxville is seen as a competitor for funds with purely regional theatres: “It should be accepted as a national festival on the same level as Stratford.”

Festival Lennoxville itself wants to be the showcase for Canadian plays performed at least once in regional theatres. W.O. Mitchell’s whimsical The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon delighted the eastern audience with its tender pokes at Prairie piety and hypocrisy as the village cobbler and minister team up to beat the devil at his own game. Hugh Webster as MacCrimmon and Michael Ball as Satan stake the cobbler’s soul against a guaranteed victory for MacCrimmon’s small-town rink at the MacDonald Brier. Black Bonspiel's best laughs come in the second act’s match itself, played on a convincing sheet of waxed and watered vinyl with accomplished curlers from a local club sliding their rocks from offstage.

The most courageous and successful play of the season is Sharon Pollock’s One Tiger to a Hill, based on a hostagetaking incident in a British Columbia penitentiary where guards killed convicts and a female rehabilitation officer was rumored to be sexually involved with her captor. Fraught with potential for excessive pity for contract-killer Tommy Paul, played by Brian Paul, the performance, under the direction of Richard Ouzounian, manages to maintain suspense and sympathy for all the characters. It also survives the necessary greyness of its theme and set.

The Canadian motif in Peter Colley’s I'll Be Back for You Before Midnight is limited to Gordon Lightfoot’s background warbling as a ghostly killer wafts into an isolated farmhouse. Other than that, the themes are internationally fashionable: sibling incest, masculine insensitivity, blackmail, Valium and, of course, death. The script is sometimes as messy as the farmhouse floor and the effects grisly—the sister’s wondrous bust is blasted into borscht— but as a thriller it works, particularly for kids who screamed to the actors: “Don’t, don’t do it.”

Festival Lennoxville’s 1980 season is thoroughly professional and provides audiences, both Frenchand Englishspeaking, with a window on recent English-Canadian theatre—and one in a corner of the house that enjoys some of the country’s best light.

David Thomas