Theatre in Wales

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First Snow/ La Première Neige: Audience & Reviewers Divided

Theatre of Scotland

National Theatre of Scotland, Théâtre PÀP & Hôtel-Motel , Canadahub @ King's Hall, Edinburgh , August 21, 2018
Theatre of Scotland by National Theatre of Scotland, Théâtre PÀP & Hôtel-Motel Nothing is ever predictable. This past winter Rufus-and-Rory-do-Will ought to have been great. Somehow the Norris-Kinnear-Shakespeare mix went down universally as a misfire. The National Theatre of Scotland is at the official Festival with an expansion of David Greig's sublime “Midsummer”- reviewed below January 20th 2011. The company also has two co-productions at the Fringe. “My Left Right Foot” is a five-star sell-out. “First Snow/ La Première Neige”, a Scots-Québécois co-production, is not.

A striking aspect of the production is how well it has been received in Scotland. Which is how it should be. A company is similar to a person- when it knows who it is for, then it knows what it is for. Ever since the first years, when John Tiffany's soldiers stomped out of their Drill Hall and went around the world, the company has been not just of Scotland but also for Scotland.

The plot is a familiar, the gathering of a clan. Isabelle summons her family back to their ancestral home in Québec. Brother Harry is conservative, daughter Zoe, who has a new Scottish boyfriend, is not. “I don't think I could ever love a Tory” she says, knocking out a third of Scots in one sentence. “Two nations with big hearts and even bigger ambitions” runs the publicity. The politics that come over are emphatic; separatism for both Quebec and Scotland is the right thing.

If “First Snow/ La Première Neige” is liked, no-one is claiming for it the qualities of completeness of “My Left Right Foot”. The Sunday Post reported it was awash with metaphors and saw a metaphor in its disorder. “The whole performance is a kaleidoscope of opinions, politics, histories, questions, answers, connections – indeed, it’s a stage version of the inner workings of most of our minds.”

From the Southside Advertiser: “First Snow/ Première Neige” is a work that I actually like a lot, but I am left a little puzzled as to its direction as it offers no resolution to our family drama as it unfolds and has no political commentary that I have not heard many times before.”

The audience response is in similar vein: “the sort of long, ambitious and multi-layered play rarely seen in the Fringe.” “A tense background including passionately different attitudes to Quebecois independence, with foreign characters enabling comparison and contrast with similar situations elsewhere, notably Scotland.” “It doesn’t offer any easy answers for the Scots to draw on from the Québécois experience it simply reminds us that retaining hope in the possibility of the future is vital."

“The play is at times deliberately confusing but this emphasises the fact that national identity doesn’t necessarily provide one easy answer.” “It’s not your typical Fringe fare, but it’s a challenging and rewarding piece that will particularly resonate with Scots and Québécois.” “It is very relevant to Scotland today. However, it is confusing at times. There are some subtitles when the actors are speaking in French - but not always.”

The status of national theatre attracted heavyweight publication. Allan Radcliffe for the Times was little enthused. He saw “fiery recreations of moments of pivotal moments in the political histories of both nations.” But “Yet, just as the writers struggle to weave the confluences of stories and references into a coherent narrative, so the group of characters is so disparate it never really convinces as a family with deep ties.” Any sense of narrative urgency gets lost in an unfocused, overstuffed script.”

So eventually to the perspective from Aberystwyth, which is much the same as that of the Times. The space is generous by Fringe standards, around 100 square metres. The production standards are those of a national company. The cast, five Canadians and two Scots, pour conviction and skill into the material to hand. But “First Snow/ La Première Neige” has no centre.

“During this project, we often gave ourselves up to chance encounters. Because we wanted to take a fresh look at our societies, we walked blindly, outside of our comfort zones in the culture of the Other” says director Patrice Dubois. It has a dab of Pirandello. The director plays with a bit of physical theatre. One of the visitor actors is obliged to cavort while singing a version of “Yellow Submarine.” It feels an embarrassment for an able actor.

The script is co-written by Philippe Ducros and Scottish playwrights Davey Anderson and Linda McLean. This tripartite authorship shows. The family gathers to dine. “Every table is its own kind of crazy” says a character. There is a strand of narrative, with small integration, about the Democratic Republic of Congo. “My country has Alzheimer's” says a Québécois. It is a metaphor that jumps in and goes nowhere. The motif of a crow flits in and out and gets a Scots folk song nicely but incongruously sung. In Canada the history of dissent is remembered and hailed. In Scotland Jimmy Reid is quoted approvingly. “There's not enough space between images, between words” says the young character Isabelle. She is all too true.

The last bi-national production to be reviewed on this site was on October 10th 2016.
“Merch yr Eog Marc'h an Eog” had two directors from Theatr Genedlaethol & Teatr Piba of Brittany. These cross-border works are complex to put together, that Welsh-Breton piece four years in the making. Like that production this one suggests theatre is better served by a piece brought direct from another country. If not, find a seasoned dramatist who can carry off a work of fusion.

But the comparison has a paradox. “First Snow/ La Première Neige” feels a mess. It is less accomplished artistically than “Merch yr Eog Marc'h an Eog”. But it is more ambitious thematically. Such is the nature of company and country.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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