I thought I’d seen and heard it all in terms of audience interaction and distraction at the theatre, but this was a new one for me: Siri heckled the actors at the opening of You Will Remember Me at the Tarragon Theatre on Wednesday night.
In the final scene of Quebec playwright François Archambault’s popular and critically acclaimed drama, Edouard (R.H. Thomson), an intellectual losing his mind to a disease like Alzheimer’s, asks a young woman, Bérénice: “Why are they keeping me here?” And Bérénice (Michela Cannon) replies: “Come on…You know why.”
This is when a computer voice piped up from somewhere in the front rows, adding in her two cents from someone’s smartphone: “KNOWLEDGE IS GOOD!”
It was hard to keep from laughing – as this was the nightmare scenario that Edouard had been warning us about at the beginning of Archambault’s play. Edouard is a historian, nationalist and public figure who, in his retirement from his university position, has taken to going on talk shows to complain about the dumbing down of culture and politics. “Look at the 1980 referendum question – everybody said it was a mistake, that it was too long, too complicated,” he argues at the top of the play. “But at least it respected the voter’s intelligence.”
The only revolution that matters to people today, Edouard speechifies, is the technological revolution. “It’s as if the virtual world is replacing the real world,” he says. Thomson, in a role that could have been written for him, makes this line of thinking convincing – and it’s doubly hard to disagree with Edouard’s logic with Siri now sticking her oar in at play performances.
And yet, Archambault’s play is a complex work of art – funny and moving, too – that suggests the situation is more complicated than that. Note, for instance, in director Joel Greenberg’s production, the way Edouard points to his head when he says “the real world.” What value does that world – the world of ideas, ideologies, knowledge – have when your mind is leaving your body behind?
Indeed, Edouard – a not entirely likeable figure in Thomson’s beautifully blustery performance – may deplore slogans, but he has become like the one on the Quebec licence plate: “Je me souviens…” He keeps telling us that history and memory are important, then trails off.
Part (modern) family drama, part state of the (Quebec) nation play, You Will Remember Me both explores the reality of dementia and uses it as metaphor, one that keeps subtly shifting.
In his current condition, Edouard gets passed around from person to person, further and further away from the traditional family unit that his Quiet Revolution dispensed with. The historian goes from his exhausted and exasperated wife, Madeleine (the reliable Nancy Palk); to his daughter Isabelle (Kimwun Perehinec), an overworked television journalist; to Isabelle’s new partner Patrick (Mark McGrinder), a mid-life burnout.
Finally, Edouard ends up being cared for by Patrick’s teenage daughter Bérénice, who comes over to babysit and develops a strong, if slightly disturbing relationship with the older man after a buried family secret comes out.
You Will Remember Me is as curious about collective memory as individual memory – and perhaps the most amusing scene comes when Edouard, after reliving his vivid recollections of the night the Parti Québécois was first elected, asks Bérénice, born in 1996, what she knows of René Lévesque. “He smoked a lot – all the time – and he was short and practically bald,” she says, then describing his comb-over in detail. The look on Edouard’s face is priceless, but Archambault’s exploration of a generation’s forgotten idealism is the most poignant part of his play.
Larger metaphysical questions underscore the action as well: Isabelle strives to live in the moment, but that’s all Edouard is now capable of – and it’s a nightmare. How much is losing your mind similar to being on Twitter all day – the melancholy of the infinite scroll?
I already enthused about You Will Remember Me when it opened in French in 2014. Because I saw that original production, perhaps I was overly critical while watching this Toronto premiere, a co-production between Studio 180 and Tarragon Theatre.
There is nothing in Bobby Theodore’s translation of the play into English that rang untrue to me. But Greenberg’s production seems to miss certain nuances, often due to acting that is overly aggressive. Cannon comes in high and on a single note as Bérénice, though she relaxes, if never quite settles, into the part as the show progresses. Both Perehinec and McGrinder similarly stumble into shouting matches whenever conflict erupts.
The subtle acting is left to Palk and Thomson, who give performances to treasure in a play that I nevertheless found, once again, food for thought and fuel for hours of conversation afterwards.
But, please, unless you want some ironic underscoring of the themes, leave Siri at home until she learns to behave.
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