Those familiar with the work of the National Theatre of Scotland won’t be surprised by the style or the content of First Snow / Première Neige.
One part kitchen sink drama and one part Scottish political theatre,
Matriarch Isabelle calls her clan – including her adult foster son of sorts François, her Scottish friend Fletcher and her daughter’s Congolese-Scottish boyfriend Thierry – back to their family home in the remote Quebec countryside. The topic of the hour is sovereignty. Sovereignty over the house, and also over their nations. The style also appears to be a collaboration with one part kitchen sink drama and one part Scottish political theatre.
I’m not convinced the production fully worked. The passionate political stances of the characters were articulated with power and familiarity, and the proximity of their arguments highlighted the strengths and weaknesses in all of them. This was a welcome opportunity to actually listen to arguments you agree and disagree with in contexts both familiar and unfamiliar - unless you’re deeply familiar with both the Scottish and Québécois independence movements, which some of the characters are but I wager most of us aren’t. However, the movement of the actors in and out of character, which is a staple of Scottish political style, felt unconnected to the action of the plot. This sometimes made it difficult to identify who was speaking and who was listening, and what was true and what was part of the world of the play.
The production very ambitiously also attempted true bilingualism, which mostly succeed. It was explained by a Francophone actor-character at the beginning (in heavily accented English) that not every word of French would be subtitled, but the meaning would be clear regardless. This was, for the most part, true. Unfortunately, in moments that were otherwise confusing, half the characters speaking in French didn’t help. Individual scenes were often strong, but it was difficult to string them together as various subplots and conflicts cropped up and disappeared again, sometimes for good, in favour of returning to the generally political drive of the show.
Overall, this production felt like too many things happening at once, none of them quite fitting in the hour and a half span of the production. The family relationships were compelling but didn’t seem to evolve; the political arguments were strong and clear but lacked urgency or drive; and the actors were compelling but were let down by needing to flow in and out of character. For those with an emotional connection to the project of independence for either of these two nations, First Snow / Première Neige an emotional punch. Unfortunately for those who don’t, it may not particularly land.