- Title: Les Filles Du Roi
- Genre: Musical
- Director: Corey Payette
- Actors: Raes Calvert, Kaitlyn Yott, Julie McIsaac, Laura Di Cicco, Andrew Cohen, Chelsea Rose
- Music: Corey Payette
- Lyrics: Corey Payette/Julie McIsaac
- Book: Corey Payette/Julie McIsaac
- Company: Fugue Theatre and Raven Theatre in association with Urban Ink and The Cultch
- Venue: York Theatre
- City: Vancouver
After the curtain fell on the world premiere of his latest work, Les Filles Du Roi, Corey Payette was presented with the 2018 Canada Council John Hirsch Prize. Awarded to “new and developing theatre directors who have demonstrated great potential for excellence and exciting artistic vision,” the prize was an acknowledgement of Payette’s work on Children of God, the residential-school musical that premiered in Vancouver last year and has since played across Canada.
But high expectations can be a double-edged sword, not least when an artist follows up a hit with a different approach. Yes, Les Filles Du Roi is also a musical. And yes, it is also a narrative about the relationship between Canada’s First Peoples and its European settlers.
Les Filles Du Roi began life as an idea of actor, director and playwright Julie McIsaac, who sought Payette out. The pair went on to co-write the book and lyrics. The result is a vision fractured through two perspectives and two ancestries; Payette is of Oji-Cree heritage, while McIsaac is a descendant of French settlers. It is a vision Canadians live with daily – messy, complex and strewn with challenges. In many ways, Les Filles Du Roi – performed in French, Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) and English – reflects that reality, which is both its strength and its weakness.
The production (beautifully designed by Marshall McMahen) takes as its entry point the arrival in Quebec of the women – les filles du roi (daughters of the king) – who are expected to help prop up the French fur trade by marrying the men already here and begin populating the colony. Between 1663 and 1673, approximately 800 women made the treacherous journey from France to the St. Lawrence River.
Those who survived both the ravages of disease and rape at sea are offered only the bleakest hope on land. “The best you can expect,” they are told, “is a man who doesn’t beat you.” They are prisoners within the French fort, kept in line by the severe Madame Savoie (Laura Di Cicco), who wields her Catholicism and colonialism with bitterness and pride.
Outside the fort, we meet Jean-Baptiste (the excellent Raes Calvert), a Mohawk with a French father who trades with the settlers, and his younger sister Kateri (Kaitlyn Yott), who is desperate to make contact with these new people. “We can be two nations, side by side,” Kateri enthuses, holding her arms up in parallel. “It can’t happen,” replies Jean-Baptiste with a sigh.
This wistfulness for what might have been had the settlers arrived with a different mindset is a constant thread, explored most explicitly by a tentative relationship between Jean-Baptiste and Marie-Jeanne (Julie McIsaac), one of the filles du roi. Around that central theme, Payette and McIssac are at pains to pack in the specific history of the competing colonial forces at the time and explore the differing cultural sensibilities around religion, environment and gender (Kateri is to be the matriarch of the Bear Clan while the French women are victims of a patriarchal system).
It’s a lot to handle in 90 minutes as multiple themes fight for dramatic space. There was room made for breakneck commentary on the Dutch and English positions, yet the disaffection of a central character was left hanging. So much time is spent on the story in the fort that the Mohawk village story feels abridged. That some of the singing was off and the dancing not tight should resolve with practice, but the structural flaws are more serious and could benefit from some reworking.
But when Payette’s directorial panache takes hold it comes alive, particularly in a flashback scene at sea, a joyous celebration in the Mohawk village (with Chelsea Rose’s spectacular singing), and perhaps most startling, a triptych of gender violence, torture and missionary zeal.
Les Filles Du Roi needs to tell us less, and show us more.
At The Cultch’s York Theatre in Vancouver until May 27.