Paul English

IN a theatre in Montreal, an imaginary family sit around an imaginary table trying to imagine how the future looks. There are arguments over the past and disagreements over the present. The woman at the top of the table appears weary as discussion takes flight around her, a discussion about how her belongings will be broken up.

Who gets the paintings? Who gets the house? What becomes of the land?

What will tomorrow look like?

Moments later, the scene shifts to Scotland and the now defunct Arches nightclub, where a Glasgow boy is falling for a Quebecois girl on the night of the 2014 independence referendum. He’d heard the rumour of a result for No; she was still dancing over the possibility of Yes. The pair come together united by politics, in more ways than one, their question the same: what will tomorrow look like?

Canadian actors are speaking in French about Scotland, and Scottish actors are speaking in English about French Canada.

The language might be different, but the subject spans the Pond.

Across both of these lands, people have grappled with the question of independence.

And across both of these lands, people have rejected the option.

It’s this unique commonality which lies at the heart of a new collaborative production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Quebec’s Theatre PAP and Hotel Motel.

First Snow/Premiere Neige is a bilingual play at the Edinburgh Fringe, performed by an ensemble cast from both sides of the Atlantic.

On the surface, it’s a story about a family struggling to come to a shared vision for their ancestral home.

Beneath that, it’s a rumination on two nations grappling with the question of independence.

“It’s a project which has evolved from a three year artist and cultural exchange between Quebec and Scotland, which came about through an initial conversation between artists from both companies at the time of the Scottish independence referendum,” says Caroline Newall, National Theatre of Scotland’s Director of Artistic Development backstage at Montreal’s Theatre Quat Sous, when The Herald visits during rehearsals.

“There was originally no sense that there would be a show at the end of it, it was really an opportunity for artists from both nations to come together and have a conversation about why our nations had sought independence.

“It didn’t become clear that there could be a show until November 2016. Every time we met, whether in Scotland or Montreal we always asked the question about whether there could be a piece of theatre in this.

“The question then was about what would we want it to say, and what the artists would say about the issue of sovereignty. It’s so complex, so diverse.”

Writer Davey Anderson is one part of the three-nibbed team - comprising Scottish writer Linda McLean and Montreal-based Philippe Ducros - charged with steering a story which takes in both Quebec’s referendums, indyref 2014, the French and British influence on Canada and the impact of Brexit and Trump on the wider political identities in Scotland and Quebec.

“When there are three playwrights who want to take control of the words, it means you really have to justify and fight for how the text should be,” he says.

“It has been amazing to learn how to come to a common style and have the vocabulary to speak to each other about all the things you take for granted as a writer, putting things which are normally unspoken into words.

“On top of that, you have two languages, two different continents. Philippe very graciously agreed to work with us in English. He had the tricky mental gymnastics of thinking in French, writing in English, and then translating it.”

Quebecois actor Isabelle Vincent plays the character of the mother at the centre of the gathering. Having been attached to the project for the duration of its three year gestation , her personal experience proved pivotal in the initial stages of development.

Anderson explains: “There was something Isabelle brought into the room which led to the idea of her character struggling to see the future.

“She said something that really stuck with me, that she was scared of losing her political enthusiasm. She was saying she was struggling to be hopeful about there being progressive change, about us being hopeful of being able to work collectively towards a better future. And that comes from our context of multiple political defeats.”

Vincent’s character was a visual artist who lived in Scotland, had a child there, and returned home to Quebec.

“She’s at a stage in her life where she feels she is losing her fire, losing what is driving her for living,” she explains “She is questioning her sense of existing and is wondering what to do with her heritage, her will.

“She invites her family and her friend from Scotland. When everyone arrives, they are filled with anger and unsolved thought from the past, and in order to get what they want they have to sit around the table, and talk it through. Even if they are opposites.”

And so the metaphor is revealed. First Snow / Premiere Neige is about the parallels between personal and national politics, large and small ‘p’, between a province and a country thousands of miles apart.

The initial stages of development saw the cast bring elements of their own experience into the rehearsal space.

For director Patrice Dubois, the creative process is a metaphor for the play’s central theme.

“There was a lot of ‘blind date’,” he says. “We set up the team and we stepped into the unknown. And I think that’s an example of what we are living in society.

“We have to live and work together to agree on things. It’s the difference between society and community. In a community you agree because you know the code. In a society you are all different you have to work to agree on something.”

Scottish actor Fletcher Mathers is among the cast, which also features Congolese-Scots actor Thierry Mabonga, as well as Quebecois performers Zoe Tremblay, Harry Standjofski, François Bernier and Guillermina Kerwin.

Her character appears fiery, defiantly pro-independence, facing off against Standjofski’s opposite view.

“She is there because she can still see the future,” says Mathers. “ I talk a lot about seeing both sides of things.”

Yet in these times illustrated by Brenda from Bristol - the woman who became a viral representation of voter fatigue during a BBC news voxpop after Theresa May called a snap General Election in 2017 - the political battleground is about more than what anyone wants to vote for. It’s about whether anyone wants to vote at all.

Getting those engaged with the independence argument over the door of First Snow / Premiere Neige might be an easier task than getting Scotland’s Brendas to engage with a piece which sets out to inspire reflection around notions of sovereignty.

“It’s a human story,” offers Mathers. “That’s what it is first. It’s about people negotiating, and having to come together to work things out.”

“Everyone has been in that position, whether it’s about family members, or being at work, or in a relationship,” adds Anderson. “It’s about how you co-exist.”

But is it a pro-independence piece?

“I really don’t think it is,” he says. “It’s certainly not an agitational flag-waving piece setting out to make you go and vote a certain way. I was a Yes voter in 2014 and was disappointed with the outcome, because it was this historical opportunity for our political culture to move in a certain direction, and it felt like that was missed.

“But Scottish independence was always a means to an end for me. Now I think the idea of the British state as a lost cause is slightly different because of the reinvention of the Labour movement across the UK, but also because I see the independence movement slightly treading water.”

“I would say it’s a project initiated by pro-indepence people trying really hard to see both sides,” adds Vincent.

Quebec, of course, twice voted against independence in 1980 and 1995. The province remains divided on the issue. Some Quebecois I speak to are French-speaking, yet identify strongly as French Canadian.

Others fear the primary French culture of the province is dissipating, and will be best protected by wrestling power from Canadian capital Ottawa.

Four years ago, director Dubois came to Scotland to experience another country as it approached its own political fulcrum.

Next month he’ll return with a story exploring what happened - and happens - next, a reflection on what some consider to be an assonance between his land and ours.

In a theatre 3000 miles from the Edinburgh Fringe, I ask him how he sees the Scottish political landscape.

“I feel there is an ‘errance’,” he says, the French translating as ‘wandering’. “I feel you have been cheated, but that something has faded out, and that you have to recover a certain unity. Those are my feelings. I watch with interest from here.”

First Snow/Premiere Neige is at Canada Hub at King’s Hall as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe until August 26. It will return to Montreal’s Theatre Quat Sous in 2019.