Elle: a survivor’s journey

Severn Thompson as Elle. | Photo by Michael Cooper

Firehall Arts Centre presents Elle, a play about a French aristocrat stranded on an island on the East Coast of Canada. Severn Thompson is the leading lady and also wrote the play as an adaptation of Douglas Glover’s novel of the same name. Christine Brubaker is the play’s innovative director. It will be live at the Firehall Arts Centre from Feb. 8–18. 

Elle, otherwise known as the French noblewoman Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, is not a typical woman of the 16th century. Aboard the ship with Jacques Cartier on one of his last attempts to claim new lands for France, Elle, along with her maid and lover, gets abandoned on the Isle of Demons after being caught in a scandalous situation unfit for a proper lady.

After the death of her companions, Elle experiences a journey of survival where she must learn to live in and within nature despite her European upbringing. Her humour and strong will keep her alive as she creates a camp on the island and reflects inwardly about herself in relation to the new land and what would eventually become Canada.

“This character of Elle is such a mystic in her own time. She was contemporary in a way and very relatable,” says Thompson. “It sort of melted the centuries between us, and I was completely transported to her reality in 1542 in Canada.”

A woman’s journey

Elle is essentially a one-woman show though Jonathan Fisher appears in it briefly to play Itslk, a man native to the land. The combination of the environmental elements that Elle finds herself in along with her solitude draws dramatic monologues from the character as she fights to survive. It is in this unfamiliar territory surrounded by nature where she encounters real bears, hallucinated bears and spiritual bears.

“As far as the element of nature goes, it’s a very strong presence within this story, and I wanted that to be the same in the play,” Thompson explains. “It’s a huge character that she must survive in and within in order to make it through.”

Elle has by no means a multimillionaire dollar budget. Its cast is minimal and its stage design is simple. This works in its favour as the audience is strictly focused on Thompson as she delivers empowering words laced with wit.

As Thompson says, it’s refreshing to be introduced to a woman who is part of Canadian history and embodies contemporary values. Her wit keeps her sane, for the most part, and it allows her to transform just as fluidly as the environment and the sense of enlightenment she receives.

“The comedy and [Elle’s] sense of irony in the piece allow her to be something other than a victim,” Thompson says. “I often find that women in history are rarely allowed a sense of humour when they’re portrayed.”

Tapping into imagination

Christine Brubaker, along with her set design team, worked diligently to bring the Isle of Demons to life with as few props as possible. Though Thompson states that nature is a character in and of itself within the play, Brubaker decided not to overwhelm the audience with an array of bulky set designs. Along with Thompson’s words, she uses light, sound and versatile cloths to enhance the experience and bring the audience into the play.

“The support of lights and sound really highlight and concentrate on what [Elle’s] experiencing and helps us distinguish where she is on her emotional journey,” says Brubaker. “The wonderful thing about theatre is that the imagination can do so much for an audience.”

A steel claw lingering in the background of the stage becomes dynamic as it evokes images of being near a cliff or bones stuck in the ground. A 30-foot long sheet moves onstage to reflect images that dissolve into one another. Since the scenes move seamlessly from landing a ship, showing a 15-foot bear, or being in a hallucination sequence, the cloth depicts both the moving nature of the setting and Elle’s mindset.

“We’re really trying to play with pieces that have no fixed meaning and that could mean anything,” Brubaker says. “If you want to keep people on a journey, you have to allow things to dissolve quickly and arrive quickly. Imagination is far more fluid than anything else.”

For more information, visit www.firehallartscentre.ca.