What does it take and feel like to start over? To be given new life, do you have to end the old one? Are you brave enough to die and to wipe the slate clean? These were the questions that bounced around my head as I watched Talisman Theatre’s spectacular new English language translation of Catherine Chabot’s award-winning 2014 play “Table rase” on a sold-out opening night at La Chapelle.
Clean Slate begins with a bang and a flash of light. These shots ring through the play, catapulting six women (Cleopatra Boudreau, Rebecca Gibian, Gita Miller, Michelle Langlois-Fequet, Kathleen Stavert, and Julie Trepanier are joined by Christian Daoust) who have gathered to honour the life of their friend. Meeting at a site of their shared childhood, they drink, laugh, and open up to each other – but as never before.
Friends for years, their close connection is immediately felt. There’s an ease to their communication: words, divulgences, teases, cries and arguments pour out of their mouths as if they’ve never told each other to be quiet – as if, amongst themselves, there were no censors, only openness. The intimacy is clear in every shout and embrace alike. These women love each other; this is what love is.
The beauty of the script, however, is that there is plenty of room for conflict between these old friends.
They talk of cutting off unhealthy relationships – to shitty men, to abusive uncles, to their bodies – and celebrate each bifurcation with support, singing, dancing (and sometimes shots). They speak of identity and of shedding: ideas of ourselves and the world, our pains and illnesses. Do objects have a use beyond their labels? Do we? If we treat ourselves as objects, we ignore our ability to grow, to change, to evolve. Perhaps we exist only as fixed images, as a means to an end for other people – or even for ourselves. We use our identities to achieve something and take on roles to get the things we want. What happens when we can’t let these roles go? It is our human inability to relinquish the stories we tell about our lives that causes suffering. Our fear of endings, of pain, and of death is what ultimately hurts us.
Do the women of Clean Slate have the answers? One makes a life-altering decision and they choose to support her. Is it the right choice? Maybe, maybe not. The point is, they have each other to see them through to the other side. When everything they’ve built and all they’ve carried falls down, they’ll still be there to pick each other up again.
It’s their willingness to press forward and reach the other side that makes them commendable and strong. Indeed, it’s what women have been doing for all of history: seeing things through. Reaping what is sown. Carrying themselves, carrying others.
“Striking” is perhaps an overused word to describe set design, but Peter Bottazzi’s work is truly best defined as such. Think pure angles, hard lines, and pitch blackness (it all makes sense; they’re in mourning). To begin, the characters lift planks of wood from the walls to put their room together. They build the supports: a table, chairs, a couch. Painted on the planks which line the walls in jagged rows are words extracted from the script: “ipod”, “rage”, “hummus”, and “anxious”. The table has six docks for phones, the phones each read “wine” and slowly deplete as the friends drink.
Good art is a splash of cold water on the face; it reinvigorates the viewer. The connections we draw between the words of the characters and the world of the play continue webbing out into our own lives well after the actors take their well-deserved bow. There’s plenty of conversation in Clean Slate and all of it is interesting. The translation of Chabot’s original French text by Jennie Herbin (Maureen Labonté is also to be credited for providing the dramaturgy for the translation) is relevant, funny, and powerful; it alone could hold the production. I moved to Montreal three years ago and this is the first full-length play I’ve seen that grabbed my attention in the first moments and held me steadfast until the last.
How lucky, then, that each performer brings dexterity, energy and intelligence to their respective character and to this marathon of a show; how fortunate that the sound (Peter Cerone), lighting (Cédric Delorme-Bouchard), and costumes (Sophie El Assaad) are relentlessly crisp and evocative, seamlessly blended into the action and supportive of the script’s themes; how blessed we are for Leslie Baker – her directorial vision shines through like glitter.
Clean Slate is modern theatre at its best: timely and well-rounded. I cannot speak highly enough of Talisman’s latest production. The show runs until March 30th and you’d be foolish to miss it.