As one of Canada’s preeminent playwrights, Michel Tremblay is renowned for his realistic, contemporary and often comical depictions of Québecois women. His latest work, Impromptu on Nun’s Island, is no different, but here Tremblay spends a little too much time atop his favourite soapboxes.
Impromptu is a tale of three generations of artists—mother Patricia (Dixie Seattle) is an opera diva who has left her Montreal home to pursue international glory, daughter Michelle (Diana Donnelly) is an aspiring actress and political activist, and grandmother Estelle (Patricia Hamilton), also an actress, is content to be a local celebrity rather than follow her daughter in seeking fame abroad. When Patricia returns home from Paris trying to disguise the fact that her voice, and subsequently her career, is failing, Michelle and Estelle, along with Patricia’s longtime accompanist, Richard (Robert Persichini), try to convince the diva to admit defeat with grace.
Tremblay’s script is a mishmash of ideas—between themes of theatre vs. opera, Québec politics, family relationships and the role of the artist in Canada, the audience is jolted from one thought to the next without time to contemplate. The opening third of the play, with an interesting device that breaks the fourth wall as Richard tells his story to the audience as his psychiatrist, and a back-and-forth dialogue between his version of the tale and Patricia’s, successfully moves the story along.
The script falls apart when the play hits the 40-minute mark, though. A dual monologue with Richard and Patricia pontificating on their connection as artists is nothing but schlock; arguments about Québec separatism and the connection between art and politics bog down the action with heavy-handed speechifying. Luckily, the play is saved in its final third by the entrance of Patricia Hamilton as Estelle, but by that point, one wonders if it’s already too late.
The flaws of Tremblay’s script are doubly disappointing when handled by a cast of this calibre. The four actors work so valiantly to overcome the script’s worst moments, one wishes they had been given better material to work with. Seattle’s performance as Patricia balances over-the-top diva gestures with barely-masked defeat, saving the character from becoming the stereotype hinted at in some of Tremblay’s lines. Donnelly is obviously comfortable in her role as a young actress—a recent graduate of the National Theatre School like her character, she uses the similarities to create a realistic portrayal of a woman and an artist lurking in her mother’s shadow. It is Patricia Hamilton’s Estelle, however, who steals the show. Though she appears only in the last twenty minutes of the production, she waltzes onto the stage with aplomb, and with biting one-liners and an infectious laugh, manages to make even the most groan-worthy sentiments palatable.
Technically, the show’s production was sound. Guido Tondino’s multi-levelled set, depicting Patricia’s penthouse in warm shades of cream, beige, and café-au-lait, allows for creative blocking, while music and lighting tricks transform the penthouse lobby into a Paris opera stage and a corner of its living room into Richard’s psychiatrist’s office.
“For [Tremblay] as a playwright, [Impromptu] is a way of exploring what artists do… a way of trying to explain the nature of performing and interpretation,” Robert Persichini said in a talkback after the play. In many ways, this is the heart of the problem. If Tremblay had steered away from explanations and allowed his strong cast and audience to interpret for themselves, Impromptu on Nun’s Island would have been far more successful.