Toronto play 'Elle' illuminates atypical colonizer-colonized roles
The touring production – about 'actual people' from the 16th century – is running in Winnipeg until March 12.
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The latest play at the Prairie Theatre Exchange is required viewing for anyone who wants to catch up on Canadian history usually shrouded in shadows.
Elle is a touring production from Toronto-based Theatre Passe Muraille. Severn Thompson stars as the titular character and Jonathan Fisher features in a supporting role.
Thompson adapted the play from Douglas Glover’s 2003 novel of the same name.
“I discovered (the story) from a book in my grandmother’s bookshelf. It had won the Governor General’s prize, but I had somehow missed that in 2003,” Thompson said in an interview Tuesday.
“When I finally read it, it just was illuminating to me of a time in history that I thought was fairly – hmm, I don’t want to be rude – but fairly dull from my memory of early school days,” she said, laughing.
“There’s so much emphasis (in history) on the explorers and the governments that fund the exploration and the search for gold, and very little about the actual people.”
Elle is based on the true story of one of those lesser-known “actual people.”
In 1542, Marguerite de la Rocque de Roberval was left to die on the Isle of Demons off the coast of Newfoundland.
The French noblewoman was single and her uncle marooned her on the Isle during a trip to Canada once he'd learned she had an affair.
Marguerite managed to survive in the wild for months before finding Indigenous tribes and later returning to France.
Fisher co-stars as an Indigenous local (Itslk) who helps Marguerite find her footing, though the man isn’t her ultimate saviour, a fact Thompson said she appreciated.
“It’s a very modern perspective because historical tales are often told in noble ways. Somehow people in history were noble,” she said. “And Marguerite is not at all. She just kind of muddles her way to survival.”
“I think it’s interesting to see (a play) where you have two people representing who aren’t the classic colonizer and colonized (roles),” Thompson said.
While its plot sounds dramatic, the script is peppered with good humour and the play doesn’t drag, despite its 90-minute runtime without intermission.
Fisher, who has acted in many history-based plays, said the ramifications of colonization on display in Elle still echo in society today.
“One thing I’ve learned from doing (Elle) and doing history plays is that history repeats itself and it happens in a circle,” he said. “A lot of Indigenous beliefs are also a circle — what happened before will happen again.”
Elle runs in Winnipeg from Feb. 22 until March 12 at PTE inside Portage Place.
After its Winnipeg run, Thompson said she hopes to tour the production on the East Coast and may later translate it for French audiences.