Albertine in Five Times is Five Times Great

It invigorates me that under the Artistic Directorship of Jackie Maxwell Canadian plays are being produced as part of the Shaw Festival’s repertoire. Indeed, Albertine in Five Times by Michel Tremblay is a classic of the Quebecois theatre, first produced in French at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on October 12th, 1984. It had its English debut at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto in 1985. It is a poignant and unique play that lends itself to brilliant performances and creative direction. I would characterize Tremblay as being a feminist playwright because so many of his plays are dominated by women who are strong, vocal, multifaceted and each with her own distinct personality and way of expressing herself. This is indeed a gift to actresses of all ages. Albertine in Five Times, a play comprised of six actresses, stands as the pinnacle example of Tremblay’s intricate, insightful, feminist work.
This play is a vivid portrait of memory. So often we see, frequently beautiful, solo performances, in which a character, usually one in his or her senior years, reflects upon the life that he or she has led. Powerful language, exquisite acting, rich storytelling technique and poignant observations on the human experience can infuse these plays with power and passion. Yet, Tremblay uses five Albertines, one to inhabit a distinct decade of the woman’s life, to fill the stage with past, future, present, hindsight, shortsightedness, wishes, hope and despair all intertwined and interacting with one another. Here, the oldest Albertine, at 70 years old, does not always remember correctly that which the youngest Albertine, at 30, experiences first hand. Albertine at 50 attempts to reclaim her life, to change her thought processes and to not dwell on the horror of her past, while Albertine at 60 chastises her for burrowing her head in the sand and shirking her responsibilities. The result is a rich depiction of a woman struggling in the journey through her lot in life. Without one single narrative voice, the authority shifts between the Albertines, giving the character’s life depth and contradiction seamlessly. Albertine at 40 and Albertine at 60 represent shame for Albertine at 70 and yet she is unable to censor their expressions of rage, despair and utter lack of faith. Perhaps if only the oldest Albertine were onstage telling her story, she would omit certain details that Albertine at 40 and 60 burst to express. All five live within Albertine at 70, and there is no escape; yet memory does not always bring pain, it can also bring solace.
There is a saying that goes, “if you’re not outraged than you haven’t been paying attention.” I believe this fundamentally to be true, and it is clear how the weight of the world crushes Albertine, a woman aware of injustice, while only touching the surface of her sister Madeleine, a naïve character who always looks 30, yet weaves through time interacting with the various incarnations of her sister. There are many different readings of Albertine in Five Times, a feminist perspective, a political perspective, an analysis of the construction of memory; this play is rich with interpretations. I would encourage anyone who attends this production to read the essay included in the programme entitled “A Woman of Many Parts” by Denis Salter. I found that it provided great context and informed my experience of the play.
The six performers in this production all gave dazzling performances. Nicola Correia-DaMude created a blithe, kind Madeleine who obviously found the actions of her sister entirely foreign and unintelligible. Jenny L. Wight, as Albertine at 40, burst with scornful rage, which contrasted perfectly with Mary Haney’s Albertine at 50, who coated her rage with a façade of empowerment and hope which was made tragic by Wendy Thatcher’s biting Albertine at 60 who had recoiled from the world. Marla McLean’s Albertine at 30 begins soft-spoken, yet obviously resolute and opinionated, and her rage boils up from within her, as she tries in vain to repress it back down inside herself. The contrast between McLean’s attempt for self-control and Wright’s outpouring of fury is especially striking. Patricia Hamilton is expressly fascinating as Albertine at 70, whose every movement and every glance about the stage seems teeming with significance. She interacts with the other Albertines (except 60 with whom she is obviously at odds) as though imploring them to share and connect with her, perhaps because she is so terrified of dying alone. It is truly a heart wrenching and beautiful performance.
The direction of this production by Micheline Chevrier is largely static, which gives every movement a strong sense of purpose. The actors playing Albertine all have similar body language, and often their movements are synchronized or repeated, which creates a magical effect. When embarrassed, the Albertines, often in tandem, will clutch the Cross chain they wear around their necks and turn away from one another. This creates a sense of continuity between the various decades and solidifies that each individual Albertine is in fact the same woman. I was struck by the lack of grit and vulgarity that I felt in this production, that the work of a playwright who uses joual and East-End Montreal backdrops often conjures. It did feel a little as though this production had been adapted to suit a Shavian consciousness. However, I don’t think it detracted from the beauty of Tremblay’s story or the richness of Albertine.

Albertine at 70 has a great line near the end of the play where she says, “When you’re young you’re sure you’re right, when you’re old, you know you were wrong. What’s the use of living?” In her director’s note, Chevrier compares Albertine to Antigone, a tragic heroine who seems trapped by fate. Yet, as Chevrier points out, in Albertine’s rage there is le resistance, a fight and willpower to trudge toward the light. The woman sitting beside me after the show yesterday turned to me at the end of the play and said, “I didn’t think I would like this, but I really enjoyed it. But what should we be, a dummy or Albertine? I don’t so much like either of those options.” There is a third choice, I think; to use the outrage one feels to channel all that is rage, that is passion, that is resisting and fighting, into something constructive in attempt to bring about change in the world. That is exactly what I think Michel Tremblay did in the creation of this play.

Albertine in Five Times plays until October 11th at the Court House Theatre, 26 Queen Street, Niagara on the Lake. For more information visit http://www.shawfest.com/

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