Wajdi Mouawad is the new superstar of Canadian theatre. The Lebanese-Québecois playwright and director, also artistic director of the French theatre section of the National Arts Centre, has been wowing Quebec audiences for a decade. With Scorched (Linda Gaboriau’s translation of Incendies) Mouawad has broken through into English Canada (the Tarragon production was by all reports phenomenal) and gotten international attention with rave reviews in Philadelphia and Paris.
I’ve been eagerly awaiting a local production of this terrific play and was surprised to learn that the rights for the west coast premiere went to a couple of Victoria companies with low profiles in Vancouver, Theatre Inconnu and ITSAZOO Productions. True to its name, Theatre Inconnu’s co-directors and actors, other than Cara Yeates, were complete unknowns to me. Could this crew do justice to such a difficult, powerful play? The answer turns out to be an unequivocal yes.
Scorched is the story of 22-year-old Quebec twins Janine (Yeates) and Simon (Michael Shewchuk), whose mother, Nawal, has just died. Through comical notary Lebel (Paddy Crawford) they learn that Nawal, who had not spoken for five years before her death, has left them a strange legacy: letters they are to deliver to their father, whom they thought dead, and brother, who they didn’t know existed.
As the twins set out to solve the mystery (Simon at first reluctantly), the play shows us Nawal’s story back in her home country, a thinly disguised Lebanon, the contemporary scenes and flashbacks overlapping each other very effectively on the bare stage, starkly lit by co-lighting designers Kirsti Makoda and Graham McDonald (also credited as a co-director), the contrasts emphasized by Michelle Lo’s costumes.
Nawal’s story unfolds over 50 years. (In most productions three actresses play Nawal at different ages; here, Casey Austin plays her all the way through, creating some confusion as the character appears never to age.) She spends much of her life in search of the son she was forced to give up as a girl, living through the horrible atrocities of the Lebanese civil wars, becoming a guerrilla fighter with her friend Sawda (an excellent Naomi Simpson), and ending up in prison, the victim herself of horrible atrocities.
The insane destructiveness of the civil wars, the terrible cycles of violence and revenge, the massacres, the brutality all make this play sometimes difficult to watch and listen to. Part Mother Courage, part Greek tragedy, Scorched is a devastating play that ends on a note of redemption. And this production gets it almost entirely right.
The acting is strong right through the cast, including Evan Roberts in a variety of roles and Jason Stevens, superb as a psychopathic sniper and war criminal. Austin is especially fine delivering Nawal’s eloquent testimony at a war crimes trial at the end. Music is used extremely effectively, credited to co-directors McDonald and Clayton Jevne, who deserve kudos for putting all this together—although they could tighten up what is sometimes a rambling epic that runs over three hours.
Rambling or not, this is must-see epic theatre.