First published in The Times, Friday August 10 2018
The process of debating national identity that characterised the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence continues to make cultural waves in the four years since the vote. In Canada, Québécois artists have had an even longer interval to spend on their national post mortem. It is 23 years since the province held its second referendum on whether to declare independence, a plebiscite that resulted in a wafer-thin “no” vote.
The idea of bringing together representatives from this pair of nations with strong, multifaceted cultural identities, both of which voted against political independence, is a promising one. Yet the central conceit struggles to find much dramatic focus in this collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland and Québec’s Théâtre PÀP and Hôtel-Motel.
Pic: Sally Jubb
The 90-minute play, scripted by Davey Anderson, Philippe Ducros and Linda McLean, is built of several admittedly moving and resonant individual stories as well as fiery recreations of pivotal moments in the political histories of both nations. Many of the arguments that spring up between the characters in this ensemble piece will be familiar to anyone who lived through either referendum process, with the emotions on display ranging from anger to despair and even the weary longing expressed by Harry Standjofski’s conservative, no-voting Uncle Harry for the whole question to simply go away.
The decision to set all of this debate and recrimination within the diverse cross-section of opinion that is a large extended family is a shrewd one. Yet, just as the writers struggle to weave the confluence of stories and references into a coherent narrative, so the group of characters in Patrice Dubois’ production is so disparate that it never really convinces as a family with deep ties. The connection between the Québécois family, led by Isabelle Vincent’s disheartened matriarch, and the Scottish characters, played by Thierry Mabonga and Fletcher Mathers, feels particularly contrived and tenuous.
Pic: Sally Jubb
There is much that is worth exploring here, notably the question of how political decisions affect future generations. Sadly, any sense of narrative urgency gets lost in an unfocused, overstuffed script, while a likeable cast is let down by a listless staging.