These walls can talk. And they have something important to say.
“Les Murs Ont Des Yeus” is a French language play, written in 2008 by playwright A.M. Matte. Its performance at the Fringe Festival in Toronto, directed by Magalie Rouillard, came complete with English subtitles. I was intrigued by this idea: how does one subtitle a play? With words on a projector, naturally. For someone whose French is barely conversational – and who will always prefer subtitling to overdubbing in films – this was a more than welcome addition. Subtitles allowed the dialogue to sing in its original French as intended, and I imagine a lot of the poetry and nuance would have been lost if the play had been contorted into English instead.
It was a little hard matching subtitle with character at times. Having a different colour or font for each character may have been helpful. But this is a minor, technical grievance. Truthfully, a few minutes in, I barely needed to glance at the subtitles. The dynamics of the actors said enough.
The characters in “Les Murs” are the rooms of a house. Their lives revolve around its inhabitants; a husband, a wife, the “children” who have since grown and left, and occasional dinner guests. They are entirely enraptured in the goings-on of people. Rouillard and designer Christine Urquhart conveyed their roomy-ness simply and very effectively, with sawed-off decorated doors and a hanging light bulb as the only set pieces. This freed up the actors so they could move around expressively and be the rooms, rather than be in them. The costumes worked similarly; the shower curtain sarong was a particularly nice touch.
Both Barbara-Audrey Bergeron (“Dining Room”) and Alex Nanot (“Kitchen”) were captivating in how they reminisced about dinner parties’ past, playing off each other and bemoaning the messy state of their tablecloths and countertops to an almost comically exaggerated extent. Both actors should be commended for bringing this clever, charming and slightly absurd script to life.
However, the underlying theme of the play is quite dark, for as we learn this is not a happy home. This is a story of spousal abuse, its horrible consequences, and the people who remain silent. We understand that the “Rooms” are the ultimate bystanders. They represent the family, friends, and neighbours who watch on the sidelines, who are all too happy to share in the good times but unwilling to confront when they know something is wrong. And all too often, that confrontation comes too late.
The “Bathroom” serves as the play’s moral centre, rather than merely a source of scatological humour (one subtle and tasteful joke aside). Bathrooms have mirrors after all, where we can see ourselves as we truly are. Geneviève Fontaine aptly communicated the gravitas of the play’s subject matter, with a couple short but powerful monologues that stood out. The audience could feel the sorrow she felt for the woman who lived there, who we never needed to see on stage to feel like we knew.
The different reactions of the “Rooms” to the abuse within their walls were all too telling. From the indignation of the “Bathroom”, to the genuine concern but reluctance to act expressed by the “Kitchen” and “Dining Room”, to the outright denial of the “Living Room”, played by Benoît Trundel. Benoît captured the desire all too many of us feel when confronted by horror to just bury our heads in the sand, or in the TV as it were. Yet, he remained likeable and relatable enough that we understand him rather than dislike him; it is truly difficult sometimes to do the right thing.
Rounding out the ensemble was Michèle Tredger as the “Attic”. Soft-spoken and unassuming for the most part, she was powerful and commanding when required in a way that brought everything else to a halt. The show also made great use of her excellent singing voice; in fact, all five actors harmonized at one point in a way both haunting and oddly inspirational.
The cast and crew accomplished a lot in the relatively short run-time. Rarely is an important message made so digestible without that importance being somewhat lost, but this show was exceptional in that way. Spousal abuse is all too real, and the reasons why good people fail to always speak up is a topic that demands exploration. Kudos to Ms. Rouillard, cast and crew for speaking up and saying it so well.