Elle transcends eras with tale of bravery, beauty
Severn Thompson (front) and Jonathan Fisher in a scene from Elle, which runs until Feb. 18 at The Firehall Arts Centre. (Michael Cooper Photo)
What do you do with a headstrong girl?”
“Maroon her on a deserted island, lest she spread the contagion of discontent. Forget her.”
In such troubled modern times, this could be one of a long list of insults littering our political news feeds. In fact, it was the condemnation of Marguerite de Roberval: a young aristocrat with a passion for books, sex and philosophy.
In 1542, she earned the wrath of her influential uncle by taking a lover while on board a ship travelling from France to the Canadian frontier. For her lustful ways, De Roberval was abandoned on an inhospitable island off the coast of Newfoundland and left for dead.
Elle imagines this willful character’s experience as one of the first European settlers. The deeply imaginative one-act production stars actor Severn Thompson who adapted the tale from Donald Glover’s Governor General’s Award-winning novel of the same name.
“It’s the story of survival that most of us missed in our history classes,” Thompson explained.
An admirer of historical fiction, the actor quickly saw the potential of showcasing Elle on the stage.
“It was very visceral and rude and funny in a way that historical fiction isn’t usually allowed to be, especially when involving women,” she enthused.
It took more than two years for her to adapt the work. Full of literary references and philosophical tangents, Elle is a complex book.
“That was the hardest part, really: whittling away at all these wonderful aspects of the novel,” Thompson said. “But the play hopefully brings it even more to life. From what I hear from people who see it, they feel spent but inspired by the end of the piece.”
The result of such paring is a deceptively simple, almost-empty stage that acts as a backdrop for a fantastical world, unfurled as Elle connects with characters, animals and landscape – both real and hallucinated.
“We found it most effective to do away with everything and make it as simple as possible. Because of the beauty of the language and the design, the audience can imagine so much.
That’s part of the magic of the show.”
Interspersing Elle’s monologue are interactions with performer Jonathan Fisher, who plays Elle’s Inuk lover. His continuous presence on stage as a musician, Indigenous artist and modern-day figure (complete with laptop) is an integral part of acknowledging that Elle’s story represents the beginning of Europeans first interacting with First Nations – and the complicated, destructive history of European settlers colonizing the country.
“We’re all still implicated in that… part of a process that is not yet done. A major theme (of the play) is the ongoing process of recognizing and discovering what transformation means for both parties. That’s what I took away from the novel and it’s what I hope people take away from the play as well,” said Thompson.
Elle holds the promise of offering a visceral yet contemplative perspective on faith, identity and an overlooked part of Canadian history. At the very least, it champions the strength of will of women who – as Thompson jokes – have been “spreading the contagion of discontent since 1542.” Long may it continue.
Elle runs at The Firehall Arts Centre from February 8 to 18. Tickets from $23 available at tickets.firehallartscentre.ca.