sarah cormier and kiersten tough
At the beginning of The Hanging of Françoise Laurent, a Stranger Theatre production now playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace as part of the 2010 SummerWorks Festival, we are told, “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” The story that is being told is an interesting one centering on an unlikely relationship that bloomed out of a prison in Quebec in 1751 between a young soldier named Jean, imprisoned for duelling, and a young lady’s maid, Françoise, who was to be hanged for stealing. This theatre festival is certainly one that encourages and fosters artists who play with the traditional narrative forms of both theatre and storytelling and seek to find new voices and unique perspectives. As a playwright, Kate Cayley is an eloquent one, although the play is challenging in that while it tells a compelling story it does not provide the actors with a lot of opportunity to really inhabit their characters and to show their complex feelings, emotions and experiences in the immediate and visceral way that it seems that this play should demand.
Kiersten Tough plays Françoise and she really takes beautiful command of the stage. In her portrayal of this lower class lady’s maid inhabits a puckish trickster whose eyes gleam with a combination of wisdom and mischief. She is an incredible storyteller and she has the ability to draw the audience into Cayley’s words and to elicit empathy and compassion for her plight. Françoise remains in prison because Quebec at this time does not have a hangman, and therefore, by law, she is desperate for her one chance at freedom. She must convince Jean, who inhabits the cell next to hers, to take the much defiled job of hangman, and to marry her. For the woman who marries the hangman is pardoned of her crimes. Zach Fraser plays Jean, with a wonderful charm and gracefulness. He has a wild laugh, but also a fear and sensitivity that cause him to recoil like a wounded animal. Fraser and Tough have a lovely moment when Jean draws a physical description of herself out of Françoise as he is curious and longing to be reminded of the delights of femininity, while she is both flattered and shy by his interest.
The way that Cayley has written this play is charming in a narrative way, but I feel like these characters, although quite historically specific, could have benefited from having stronger, unique personalities to elevate them beyond the familiar connotation of “wealthy lady,” “dashing soldier” and “wretched poor servant.” Sarah Cormier plays Madame, and there is the beginning of a fascinating relationship of curiosity, intimacy and fascination that emerges between her and Tough’s Françoise, which I would love to see pushed much further and explored to great depths. Cormier plays Madame with a tentative dignity swaying between curious affection and mild indignation, and I think she could be much fiercer and to really inhabit her high status and to manipulate and degrade, whilst becoming enamoured and envious of this poor girl with much more intensity and commitment.
As a director, Kate Cayley has created a number of really interesting moments, but I think that the timing of a few of them could be inhibiting them from making the strongest impact on the audience. I did find the ending of the play particularly fascinating because I connected the last image with a story told earlier about a woman walking alone at night who meets a man she should not have trusted. I was unsure whether this allusion was intentional or not, but for me, I felt that it gave the piece a dramatically satisfying end.
In all, I think the play would be even more engaging, utterly gripping in fact, if the audience was thrown more into the action, with a sense of suspense and immediacy. There are lots of great details, such as Cormier’s playing of the accordion and lovely dancing, the use of French songs to meld the scenes together and the interwoven tale about the man who tried to cheat death, and these all cement my feeling that this play just needs to find its punch and to not be afraid to delve into more gritty and dangerous territory.
The Hanging of Francoise Laurent plays at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Avenue) at the following times:
August 7th 12:00 PM
August 8th 8:00 PM
August 9th 10:00 PM
August 12th 4:00 PM
August 13th 6:00 PM
August 15th 10:00 PM