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UBC Theatre Review: Les Belles-soeurs

I had the opportunity to view the UBC Theatre production of Les Belles-soeurs on its opening night. I didn’t really know what to expect going in; the play had been recommended to me as an important piece of Canadian women’s theatre, and I can certainly see why.The play, an all-female production, centers around a community of working class Quebecois women in the late 60s. It focuses on their struggles as poor wives and mothers, humanizing them in very realistic ways. They express how fed-up they are with the endless, monotonous toil of their lives as mothers, wives, and homemakers. They must bear the burden of caring for their entire family. One woman is fed up with having to care for her elderly mother-in-law whom she sees as a burden. Another has a husband who is constantly exerting his “right” to have sex with her. Birth control is heavily stigmatized and disapproved of, and abortion is illegal. They do not have the right to divorce their husbands and are not equal to men under the law.

Although the play paints a sympathetic and humanizing picture of the women, they are certainly not idealized either. They shun other women who have transgressed their conservative sexual mores. They steal from one another. They pitilessly criticize one another and their families.The actors handled their characters masterfully. Despite its serious handling of heavy topics, the show is also extremely funny and the actors strike a perfect balance between honestly portraying their characters’ struggles and allowing humour to shine through their performances.

There were definitely some uncomfortable moments for me as I watched the play. One of the characters tells a rape joke at which the other characters laughed raucously, as did many of my fellow audience members. I myself found it a disturbing moment rather than an amusing one. There are also several jabs throughout the play at men who are called “queers” and “fairies;” I understood their context given the setting of the play, but the fact that, again, the audience laughed at them was rather unsettling to me.

Les Belles-soeurs was written by Michel Tremblay in 1965 and originally produced in 1968. The play was revolutionary in its time. Director Diane Brown notes, “[Tremblay] dared to put working class women talking about working class things on upper middle class stages, using a shunned Quebecois dialect, joual.” The play has the power to speak to us still today, she says. “In this era of Trump where racism, misogyny, and other hate-values of rudderless capitalism are being normalized, it is disturbing to realize how timely this piece is, how well it reveals what ‘everyone out for themselves’ looks like, and at what cost.”The show runs from March 16-April 1, 2017, and tickets can be purchased online.

Jacqueline Marchioni is a fifth year Honours English major and a Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice minor.