Seeing La fureur de ce que je pense was my first experience of Nelly Arcan’s writing, far less known in the English-speaking world than in the French where her work has been nominated for several prestigious awards. Before attaining fame as an author, she worked as a sex escort. At 36 years of age, she hanged herself in her Montreal apartment.
La fureur de ce que je pense, presented in Ottawa, as part of the French language programme of the NAC, was assembled by the director Marie Brassard from Arcan’s works, which although they are largely autobiographical, are representative of the anxieties and stress of many women. This may be the reason that the single character is enacted by six different actresses. Before the show begins, the audience sees what appear to be two levels of mirrors stretching across the stage with blinding lights above them. The effect is that the audience members view themselves reflected, thus making them part of the world of the play. The lights go down slowly. Voices are heard speaking in unison as in a Greek tragedy. There are six extraordinary actresses, all of whom play the same character, but every one of them recounts incidents or aspects of the character’s life through a series of monologues. In addition, there is a small graceful dancer who does not seem to be part of the same world. Does she symbolize Arcan as an innocent child? She enters and leaves the stage seemingly at will.
Each actress is encased behind glass in a separate room that could be part of a bordello. At times, the lights are only on the person speaking; at others, we see the women engaged in other aspects of the character’s life as we watch and listen to the speaker. Arcan’s writing is poetic even when painful to hear and all of the actresses speak it beautifully, though they are miked because of the glass window that would dilute the sound.
The first monologue is about her childhood, an ongoing theme. Before the character’s birth, her older sister died, leaving her mother bereft and longing for a son to replace her beloved daughter. Disappointed, she was unable to love her new child. In early childhood, the character was close to her father who created a new world for her through his stories of science and religion. She dreamed of the ocean, frozen landscapes, and their beauty – a beauty devoid of people.
While she was still prepubescent, her father caught her in bed with an older boy taking advantage of her. The shame and pain of the incident turned her against her body and left her conflicted about sexuality. At the same time, she was focussed on her beauty and her fear of losing it through aging. Arcan was slender, but shapely, as are the actresses who play her as an adult. Competitive with other women, she always needed to be the most ravishing, the sexiest. Unhappy, discontent, and lonely, she is drawn to suicide despite lingering religious fears that she enunciates before she commits the act.
Alexander Sween’s sound design enriches the production with recorded liturgical-like music sung by women, the plaintive song of a child, and throbbing electronic music, which builds to climaxes. Antonin Sorel’s set captures the mood and meaning of the play. Each somewhat attractive room is its own prison where the various representations of the character are almost constantly watched and almost never leave. The ever-changing exquisite lighting design created by Mikko Hynninen is another actor in the piece. Catherine Chagnon’s costumes are attractive and suitable.
Considering that the actresses do not interact in the usual sense, there is a rare wholeness in this production that gives new meaning to ensemble. Adapter-director Marie Brassard did a phenomenal job.
Presented by Infrarouge at the FTA from June 3 to June 6, 2017 at Usine C
Written by Nelly Arcan
Adapted and directed by Marie Brassard
Set Design ……………….. Antonin Sorel
Lighting Design ………….. Mikko Hynninen
Music …………………….. Alexander MacSween
Sound Design …………….. Frédéric Auger
Costume Design ………….. Catherine Chagnon
Evelyne de la Chenelière
Julie Le Breton