Over the years UBU has often created plays based on works not written for the stage. How does this novel by Marie-Claire Blais fit into that approach?
Denis Marleau – What was appealing about Soifs was its vigorous writing, its larger-than-life scope, its embrace of a kaleidoscopic vision of the world and its human depth. Given the work of the actors and all that theatre can set in motion, we wanted to be attuned to the author’s unique phrasing. Marie-Claire Blais’ writing shifts from one character to another along a continuum of ideas, situations and sensations, honing in on their break-ups, their ups and downs and their digressions as they move from one scene to the next.
Stéphanie Jasmin – It’s also another way to enrich our approach to the acting, as we’ve done previously. How do you speak of yourself in the third person? How does one function onstage as both the teller of the tale and the very incarnation of language, the embodiment not just of the story expressed through language, but also its psychological meaning?
What principles guided you in adapting this cycle of novels for the stage?
D. M. – The books employ a non-stop verbal flow, with no paragraphs, which demands that the reader pay close attention. All them are written in lengthy sentences that run pages long. In the first book, Soifs, I counted only 65 full stops in 316 pages. The sentences unfold freely, circulating without any transition from narration to dialogue or inner monologues, from one character to another, moving from past to present or future, from one location to another. From among the more than 240 characters in the cycle, we selected 25, not counting the musicians, almost all of them taken from Soifs.
S. J. – Soifs consists of several interwoven stories, tales that are call and response, that return sometimes in new variations, that often remain open, unresolved. The strength of the writing resides in its rhythmic, musical, almost incantatory phrasing. It’s one dimension of the novel that really inspired us.
How do you portray the many different atmospheres and locations?
D. M. – Music plus the sounds of nature or of the city play an important role in the story. Phrases run through the soundscape according to how the various narrative threads unfurl. There is party music, but also the music that emerges in the characters’ thoughts or that reveals their particular moods.
S. J. – Soifs takes place on an island located between the U.S. and the Caribbean, obviously inspired by Key West, where Marie-Claire Blais lives and where she wrote the entire cycle. When filming down there, I was looking for the sorts of artifacts, traces and images that the book is full of, more like fragments, close-ups of a detail, in order to create a perceptible topography, following the mobility and subjectivity of thought.
The long sentences of Soifs appeared to me from my very first reading like sequence shots of a movie. It is that cinematographic quality of the writing that inspired the staging.
What are the themes and issues of the piece?
S. J – Soifs presents some stunning contrasts inherent to the world we live in. If we place the time frame of the first novel in the cycle as being the late 1990s, a time when AIDS was ravaging the homosexual community and the after effects of the Gulf War were still resonating, there is in Marie-Claire Blais’ work somewhat of a gift for premonition that expands the vantage point, and that anticipates the glaring political and social issues of today, such as migrants drowning in the sea, sexual violence against women, child soldiers, the resurgence of racism in the U.S., extreme weather events, etc.
What to do about that violence, given that we are so powerless? How can we continue to live a normal life after seeing a news report about child soldiers in Yemen, or after listening to a Syrian family describe what they have gone through? Marie-Claire Blais does not separate these two parallel worlds but instead connects them, tackles them head-on, constantly confronting and juxtaposing situations, putting contrasting characters, with their very different life experiences, in close proximity. She presents a real, human and intimate dimension to these world tragedies, a collective memory that is more communal and more profound that we think.
D. M. – From a benevolent stance devoid of pre-packaged truths, Marie-Claire Blais sees life as unpredictable and in constant movement. She establishes relations with both the torturer and the victim, with those who drown and those who save them, with those starting off in life and those who leave it, with hurricanes and the fair trade winds, with cats and songbirds. Nothing about paradise or hell escapes her gaze.
*Published with permission from Festival TransAmériques (FTA)