Stage Door Review

Lessons in Forgetting

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

✭✭

by Emma Haché, translated by Taliesin McEnaney with John Van Burek, directed by Ash Knight

Pleiades Theatre, Young Centre, Toronto

May 12-22, 2022

Elle: “Oui, mais à part moi, tu ne te souviens de rien”

Pleiades Theatre is currently presenting the English-language world premiere of Lessons in Forgetting (Exercice de l’oubli) by Acadian playwright Emma Haché. The play was published in 2016 by Lansman, significantly under the categories of both theatre and poetry. The world premiere on stage in the original French was given by the Théâtre populaire d’Acadie in Edmundston, NB, in January 2019 and then played Toronto in February 2020.

In Lessons, Haché attempts to make static subject matter, which would be more suitable for poetry, dramatic. While a change does occur in the course of the play’s 70 minutes, the situation at the end of the play is exactly the same as it was at the beginning.

Before the action of the play begins, the male character named only He has been in a car accident. As a result of his head injury he suffers from both amnesia and short-term memory loss. All that he remembers, but only when He sees her, is that he loves his wife, named only She. (She is usually played by Ma-Anne Dionisio, but I saw Nadine Villasin in the role when I attended.) She visits He (Andrew Moodie) every day and while she is with him he expresses his love for her even though he remembers nothing else about their life together or even his name. As soon as She leaves, He is plunged back into a desert of memorylessness where, frustratingly, He knows that he should know more but doesn’t know what that more is.

His wife She is aware of this situation. She knows He forgets her as soon as she leaves, and this causes her to face a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, She knows that her visits to He are the only moments when he experiences pleasure and happiness. On the other hand, since he forgets this visits as soon as she leaves, She wonders what point they have. Visiting He may give him pleasure but for She these visits are increasingly painful since He shows no signs of improving. Why should she pretend to herself that her visits have any effect other than making her mourn the loss of the man she once knew who will never return?

The problem with Haché’s play is that once she has established this as the situation, there is no place for the action to go. Or, what is worse, Haché does see two places where the action could go but deliberately chooses not to follow either path.

We see what one possibility could be when She reminds He that while he survived the car accident with head injuries, the woman he was with died instantly. Obviously, He is not going to remember who this woman was, but She must know. Either this mention of another woman is merely symbolic, i.e. the other woman is really She whose life is now empty, or the other woman means that the love of He for She may be compromised. For She to mention this important detail and yet not pursue it with He or taunt him with it, since She can vent her anger as much as she wants without hurting He, means that Haché has thrown us a possible plot point without following it up.

More serious is a second path Haché does not follow. She tells He that they have had a child together, a girl named Adèle, who is a dancer. At another visit She tells He that they have had a child together, a girl named Alice, who is a dancer, and this time She provides an extensive description of a ballet that she saw Alice perform in. At another visit She says that they have no children – she had two miscarriages.

While She is supposed to be visiting He in order to help bring back his memory, here we have two examples where She seems deliberately to be planting false memories. Or, since He will not recall anything She says, it could be that She is using her visits to fantasize about the life that He and She could have had.

At the same time, He is curious about what She tells him, even though he doesn’t necessarily believe her. She tells He that his name is Auguste Brouillard, but He finds this too funny a name to be real. He would rather have Auguste Dickens be his name. This exchange hints that He’s memory may be gone but not his imagination.

Following this path could have led Haché to a far more intriguing play than the one she has written. Just think of the multiple ironies surrounding the question of reality and illusion if Haché presented She’s visits as excuses for She to make up a life for her and He that will never happen except in her imagination, while at the same time He imagines a life based on the truths and falsehoods She tells him.

The frustration is that Haché suggests this as a possibility but does not follow it up. She wants her play to focus on the burden of duty She feels towards He, even though following that path leads to a dead end. In fact, Haché seems to want her play to deal solely with the mystery of love and with no other mysteries that could form a plot.

Adding to the notion that Haché is simply using the 70 minutes of the play to portray an unchanging situation is the presence of a Narrator (Reese Cowley) to provide an excessively long introduction to the “action”. The introduction has much to do with “dead leaves” symbolizing faded memories and the words “dead leaves” occur so many times that it feels as if Haché is still flogging her metaphor after it has died. 

What holds our tenuous interest is the committed performances of the cast. Though Nadine Villasin, a last-minute substitute, was acting script-in-hand for most of action, this seeming handicap did not undermine the intensity of her performance of the urgency of her line readings. In fact, had Haché wanted to add a metatheatrical element to her play about memory, having one character read their lines would be quite a novel technique.

Andrew Moodie portrays the starkly contrasting sides of He’s life. When She is present, Moodie wonderfully brings out the the childlike playfulness that bespeaks a man full of life and love. When She is absent Moodie’s entire presentation changes as his character falls into despair as if he were in a desert where no objects are distinguishable.

Reese Cowley plays the Narrator trying rather too hard to lend Haché’s repetitive prose the profundity of poetry. It is quite a surprise then that she plays both daughters of She so naturally. Cowley distinguishes the two but gives both a ballerina’s seeming outward fragility that is belied by her inner strength. Nicola Pantin has beautifully choreographed the action and all three actors move smoothly and dextrously, though it must be said that Cowley is particularly graceful, especially in the long ballet sequence She describes starring Alice.

Jackie Chau’s set is all abstract planes and places on an alley between an audience on two sides. Arun Srinivasan’s lighting emphasizes the generally non-realistic atmosphere of the piece, while Denyse Karn’s projections on the two facing walls of the set provide the only clues to external reality, such as the weather, that prevents the play from being entirely symbolic.

Pleiades Theatre’s mandate is to bring Toronto voices in translation that we would otherwise not hear and it has been essential in providing global variety to the Toronto theatre scene. It is a good in itself to be able to see an example of Acadian theatre in Toronto and to know that poetic drama which one might have thought died out in the middle of the last century is still being pursued by young writers. The main difficulty with Lessons besides a stasis that cannot be coaxed into drama, is that other plays have appeared that deal with memory-loss in an innovative and truly dramatic fashion.

Prime among these is The Father (Le Père) from 2012 by French playwright Florian Zeller, staged by Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre in 2019 about the relation of a father with Alzheimer’s and his daughter. Rather than taking an outsider’s view of the situation via a Narrator as Haché does, Zeller makes us see the world in all its confusion through the eyes of the title character. This means that the audience has to struggle to decide what is real and what is not just as the father does. This gives Zeller's play a dynamism and vitality that Haché’s play entirely lacks.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Ma-Anne Dionisio as She and Andrew Moodie as He, © 2022 Kate Young, graphic design by Jacob Whibley; Ma-Anne Dionisio as She, Reece Cowley as the Narrator and Andrew Moodie as He, © 2022 Cylla von Tiedemann; Nadine Villasin.

For tickets visit tickets.youngcentre.ca.