Severn Thompson’s bear necessities

Actor adapts award-winning historical novel Elle

ELLE by Severn Thompson, adapted from the book by Douglas Glover, directed by Christine Brubaker, with Thompson and Jonathan Fisher. Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Previews Thursday to Sunday (January 14-17), opens Tuesday (January 19) and runs to January 31, Tuesday-Saturday 7:30 pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday (except January 16) 2 pm. $17-$38, matinees pwyc-$22.50, previews $22.50. 416-504-7529, See listing. 

If you remember your Canadian history, you might recall the efforts of Jacques Cartier to explore this country in the mid-16th century.

But you might not have learned about Marguerite de Roberval, who travelled here with her uncle and ended up being – against her will – one of the first Europeans to settle in what would become Quebec.

Actor Severn Thompson learned of de Roberval when she read Douglas Glover’s Governor General’s Award-winning novel Elle, and she was so impressed that she adapted it into a play.

“The book brought to life an early chapter of Canadian history. From the start I saw it as a staged piece, since the character expresses herself in a contemporary way that I could relate to,” Thompson says. “She might not be much more than a sidebar in history, but in this story she’s constantly saying, ‘Look at me, be aware that I exist.’

“The book’s Marguerite writes about her own experiences as a misfit, someone not hemmed in by the social and cultural restrictions of her time. As punishment, her father sent her with her uncle, newly appointed lieutenant governor of New France, to explore an uncharted world.”

In 1542, left by that uncle on the isolated Isle of Demons along with her partner (in a fine comic touch, here he’s an early version of a tennis pro who’s batted balls with the king of France) and her nurse, the young woman survived a Canadian winter and eventually returned to France.

“I’ve played a number of historical pioneers, including Susanna Moodie and Anna Jameson,” Thompson says, “but tackling this character, called Elle, is a really different challenge. Imagine an aristocrat finding herself with no useful skills in the woods and living to tell the tale.”

Part of de Roberval’s survival involved an Innu man, Itslk, who in the story is on a journey of his own.

“One of my revelations in developing the script was how much this encounter applies to our present life, how the early meetings between Europeans and native people have played a part in shaping who we are today. The negotiations between people, and also between people and the land, are ongoing.”

Also part of the narrative mix is the image of the bear, an animal that functions both literally and metaphorically. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the animal in Elle’s story is real or imagined.

“In some native cultures, dreams and waking life are of equal importance, and that idea applies to the bears who wander through this tale. The bear is a powerful figure, not to be trivialized. For me, it reflects the character of the land, its undeniable and unpredictable force.

“Neither animal nor land is something Marguerite can simply forget about, even when she’s back home in France.

“She’s transformed by her experiences, and since we see the land through her eyes, it is reinvented as well.” | @nowtoronto

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