As Wajdi Mouawad's Sophocles-a-thon Des Femmes begins, the casts for all three tragedies to come assemble in the centre of the stage, and it begins to rain.
While a four-piece band plays a rock 'n' roll dithyramb to the sun, the actors shelter themselves from the downpour, passing a giant tarp from hand to hand until it covers all their heads.
Here are queens and kings, wives and mistresses, executioners and the condemned, killers and victims all working together for a moment before all hell breaks loose.
Mouawad painted a similar stage picture at the end of his own production of his great play, Incendies, which most recently appeared under its English title Scorched in San Francisco starring Oscar-nominated actor David Strathairn.
It's an image that sums up the Quebec playwright and director's humanist message as an artist, which is, roughly, something like the line by Roman playwright Terence that Montaigne loved so much he inscribed it on the ceiling of his library: "I am a man: I consider nothing that is human alien to me."
No one usually objects to such a sentiment in the safety of the theatre, but when Mouawad cast Bertrand Cantat, a French rock singer who killed his girlfriend in what was deemed an "involuntary homicide", in Des Femmes, his philosophy of understanding even evil caused a furor that made temporary bedfellows in outrage of left-wing feminists and law-and-order conservatives.
There's no point in revisiting that controversy. Cantat may have served what the powers that be deemed an appropriate amount of time in jail in France, but he's still not legally allowed in Canada.
That's what's not on stage; here's what is: Six hours of ancient, female-centred plays that leave the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde covered in dirt and water. While the visual mess is enjoyable at times, Mouawad's overall concept is too muddy to sustain interest.
Ask the next scholar of classics you run into at the grocery store and she'll likely rank these plays by Sophocles – Antigone, Electra and Women of Trachis – in that order, from strongest to weakest. Mouawad's production does not shake up that perception.
Women of Trachis, which comes first, is the low point. Sylvie Drapeau plays Deianeira, whose excitement as she awaits the return of her husband Heracles from battle turns to anxiety and jealousy when she discovers that he recently ransacked a city to gain a lover. She sends a robe covered in the blood of a centaur to her husband believing it will restore his heart to her; instead it fatally injures him. Drapeau also plays the returning, ailing Heracles – "reduced to the state of a woman" in French poet Robert Davreu's straight-forward translation.
Sophocles denies us the opportunity to see Deianeira and Heracles confront one another, and Mouawad's double casting provides a clever reason why. But Drapeau's performance is altogether too elegant and, interspersed rock songs aside, Women of Trachis conforms to the stereotype that Greek tragedy involves a lot of waiting around for something dramatic to happen elsewhere.
Antigone is up next and Mouawad is much more in his comfort zone with a young, rebellious protagonist, like those that populate his plays Littoral, Scorched and Forests.
Charlotte Farcet's punky Antigone lights up the stage with her old-school fury as she fights for her right to bury. Bury her brother, that is, whose interment has been expressly outlawed by Antigone's uncle Creon. As that stubborn ruler of Thebes, Patrick Le Mauff puts an enjoyable Sopranos spin on the character, and his descent into madness at the end is inspiringly staged complete with hallucinated wedding of Antigone and his son Hemon. This is acting that feels real, rather than recited.
Next, Mouawad gets an appealingly boisterous performance from Sara Llorca as Electra. If Antigone is Beasties Boys, this Sophocles tragedy is more Blur: Girls who get boys to kill moms who kill dads who kill girls and so on.
A demure Ismene in Antigone, Llorca here pouts like a teenager in her dirty room – it's actually filled with dirt. This Electra is sullen, but also highly sexed; wearing a long black cloak and only briefs beneath, she keeps flashing her breasts like a girl going wild. Once reunited with Orestes (Samuel Côte), the brother she thought dead, and a revenge plot for matricide and step-patricide is hatched, she goes full Mardi Gras in a shirtless, semi-incestuous celebration that involves plenty of jumping in and out of a rain barrel..
As the marathon performance of Des Femmes I saw that began on Friday stretched into Saturday, such titillation did not go unappreciated. But overall, the ratio of stand-and-deliver oration to naked mud wrestling is a disappointment. I kept almost nodding off, to be entirely honest.
In the end, despite not being there in body, Cantat really livens the proceedings up. Standing in for the traditional Greek chorus, his songs – composed with Bernard Falaise, Pascal Humbert and Alexander MacSween – are plangently beautiful, in the style of his old band, Noir Désir. They aren't always well integrated into the narrative, however – only in Antigone, do they really work as part of the drama.
Substitute singer Igor Quezada has a virtuosic voice, but he's not always clear about communicating the meaning of the lyrics. I would have preferred to hear Cantat doing his signature, poetic, portentous sing-speaking, but he probably would have overwhelmed the stage. And the people of our modern-day Thebes have spoken: The murderers must be exiled. They can be heard, but not seen; only fictional ones on stage, please.
Des Femmes runs in Montreal (in French) until June 6.
- Written by Sophocles
- Translated by Robert Davreu
- Directed by Wajdi Mouwad
- At the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in Montreal
- 2 stars