The Limits of Tolerance: Interview with Claude Poissant for Bonjour, Là, Bonjour

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Two like-minded men of the theatre, Claude Poissant and Michel Tremblay, meet at last for a new production of the latter’s Bonjour, là, bonjour.

Surprisingly, while they both have a soft spot for rebels and outcasts, this is the first time that Poissant has directed a work by Tremblay. For the artistic director of the Théâtre Denise-Pelletier – known for his many successful incursions into contemporary Quebec drama (La Déposition by Hélène Pedneault, pieces by Larry Tremblay (Tom à la ferme by Michel Marc Bouchard, Bienveillance by Fanny Britt) – this artistic union seemed destined to happen.

“Before Bonjour, I’d come across Tremblay at the amateur level and once in the collective Les Huit Péchés capitaux at Théâtre Petit à Peti [which he co-founded],” Possant explains over the phone a few minutes before a morning rehearsal. But he has long admired the playwright famed both here and abroad.

“I was lucky enough to see the premiere of Bonjour in 1974, directed by André Brassard [and featuring the actress Denise Pelletier]. I was a young teenager looking for meaning and I plunged headfirst into this world. I’d known Tremblay earlier with Les Belles-Sœurs and À toi, pour toujours, ta Mari-Lou. I’d say that Bonjour, là, bonjour was my favourite [as it is Tremblay’s’], even though it’s not the best-known or the most accessible. I’ve seen nearly all the productions staged in Montreal. I said to myself, one day I’ll direct it.”

Premiering in summer 1974, the play ruffled a lot of feathers. It’s about a Québécois family whose only son, Serge, comes home after a three-month stay in France. He returns to a dysfunctional family (a favourite theme of Tremblay’s). His father, now deaf, is living with two hypochondriac aunts and Serge’s four sisters, who all adore him. He has a passion for one of them, Nicole, and wants to consummate this. The story matches the spirit of Quebec society during the Quiet Revolution and the ambivalence of a people who yearn for independence but don’t dare make the big leap.

The essential magazine of the counterculture, Mainmise (1970-1978) praised the production: “For the first time, marginality is not only accepted by the person experiencing it, but is condoned by the one person likely to have condemned it: the father.” The fact of taking a controversial stance while looking after one’s family still resonates nearly 45 years after.

“Why does it appeal to me so strongly? I have a deep affection for Bonjour, which was written at a critical moment in Quebec society, between the 1970 October Crisis and the election of the first PQ government in 1976.” The character of Serge (played here by Francis Ducharme) symbolizes this quest for identity. “It’s the first play by Tremblay where a character takes the initiative of leaving Quebec to find himself,” says Poissant.

The casting is a chance for young actors to experience the language of Tremblay. But there is an old familiar name too in the form of Gilles Renaud (Armand, the father), who, like Rita Lafontaine, is closely associated with the playwright. “Mylène Mackay (Nicole) and Francis Ducharme say words such as ‘toé’ and ‘moé’ on stage for the first time. They’ve never worked with joual before. It’s a bit of a shock to hear these words in the mouths of contemporary actors.”

The cast also includes Annette Garant and Diane Lavallée as the aunts Charlotte and Gilberte, as well as Sandrine Bisson (Lucienne), Mireille Brullemans (Monique) and Geneviève Schmidt (Denise) as the other three sisters. As Poissant points out, the “unsettling” reality of a brother-sister relationship challenges our levels of acceptance of what is different. The story is about “the difficulty of asserting oneself within one’s family and in society. It’s still a very taboo subject, seamed with prejudice. Tremblay challenges us to feel empathy for characters constantly oscillating between fragility and manipulation. Nicole and Serge actually do something. Sometimes we wonder if they’re really in love. I see this as an appeal to extreme tolerance.”

In the face of realities where sexual ambiguity and questions of morality intertwine, Poissant sees a sort of inverted #MoiAussi. “The three sisters are jealous of Nicole and her relationship with their brother.”

As views of the affair evolve, the director even sees a similarity with some fraternal relationships in Réjean Ducharme. “The complicity of the couple and their joy in each other were less present in previous readings where they both seemed more awkward. I wanted to bring their connection back to something more concrete, more animated.” Should we expect a more upbeat ending? “That’s a secret, but it doesn’t end in a huge party.”

Another way that Bonjour, là, bonjour differs from the plays of the 1960s and 1970s in the Belles-Sœurs cycle is in the father, a far cry from the broken men in En pièces détachées and Mari-Lou. “Armand is an intelligent father who acknowledges his son and loves his family.” In Poissant’s eyes, this proof of love mirrors Tremblay’s humanist message. “Tremblay has spent his life pushing for greater freedom and trying to demolish prejudice. His call for openness seems to me more urgent now than ever.”

Translation by Cecilia Grayson

Bonjour, là, bonjour will be at Théâtre Denise-Pelletier, November 7 to December 5.

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