Yves Sioui Durand and Jean-Frédéric Messier
|Yves Sioui Durand|
Hamlet-le-Malécite, written by Yves Sioui Durand and Jean-Frédéric Messier, was produced by Ondinnok, the only First Nations theatre company in Québec, in Montréal in June 2004. The performance, directed by Messier, was staged at American Can, an old warehouse with a spectacular view over the working class Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district of the city in which the climactic final scenes of the play are set, even though the main action takes place in the fictional, rural village of Kinogamish.
Making Ondinnok, a Huron word for a theatrical healing ritual that reveals the secret desire of the soul, is precisely what the troupe seeks to accomplish through its theatre. According to Sioui Durand, the troupe, which was founded in 1985 in order to create professional First Nations theatre, considers its work a “théâtre de résistance parce qu’il est une tentative de décolonisation culturelle” through the performance of “[des] cérémonie[s] pour se guérir de la violence et échapper à l’abîme du suicide” [theatre of resistance because it’s an attempt at cultural decolonization; ceremonies to heal from violence and escape the abyss of suicide]. He adds that their art is medicine and “toute médecine est transgression” [all medicine is transgression] (Program notes). In fact, medicine and suicide are important themes in the play: while Dave calls out for his father to give him medicine (58), it is ironically the acts of this same father that provoke Ophélie to commit suicide. Failing to escape from the fate of her Shakespearean namesake, Ophélie exposes how many First Nations communities are plagued by the problem of suicide, especially youth. According to statistics by the Government of Canada, the overall rate of suicide is three times higher among Native peoples than other Canadians, and five to eight times higher among Native youth.
Hamlet-le-Malécite is thus primarily concerned with First Nations issues, not only those such as suicide and alcoholism that typically make headlines for their shock value but also issues that do not, such as racism between different Native peoples. Sioui Durand points out that there exists “parmi les Amérindiens, un racisme interne face aux Malécites, nation méconnue originaire de la rivière Saint-Jean, au Nouveau-Brunswick” [among Native peoples, an internal racism towards Malécites, an unknown nation originally from the St. John River valley in New Brunswick] (Le Devoir ). The Malécites (also known as Malecite or Maliseet in English), who are part of the Algonquian linguistic family, have a population of only 712 people in Québec (only two of whom live on reserve) and are located in the region near Rivière-du-Loup. The adaptation exposes this internal racism though the numerous insults brought to bear on the protagonist Dave. Because his father was “rien qu’un Malécite” [nothing but a Malécite] (71), other Natives consider Dave “trop blanc pour jouer un indien” [too white to play an Indian] (10).
The denigration of Malécite culture as a whole is also critiqued in the play through telling associations with Shakespeare. Claudius says that the name “Shakespeare” sounds so strange to his ears that it must forcibly be Malécite (42). Granted, this same Claudius is also ignorant as to who is French president “Jacques Chieriac” (with a pun on “chier” meaning “to shit”) (17), takes Hamlet for “Femellette?”, and considers all theatre to be “des projets d’homosexualité” by “des gars en collants” [projects of homosexuality; guys in tights] (30), but his association of the Malécite people with a Shakespeare who is foreign, alien, and other to his own Native culture testifies nonetheless to a discrimination towards a fellow Native people that he qualifies as other. Laerte similarly evokes Shakespeare in order to underscore the otherness of the Malécites both in regard to the British canon and the local Québécois culture in which they are immersed. Taunting Dave’s Shakespearean aspirations, Laerte suggests, “Hamlet? Dave, come on… Tu pourrais peut-être commencer par Les Belles-sœurs en Attikamek, c’est à peu près la seule langue dans laquelle ça pas été traduit” [You could maybe start with Les Belles Soeurs in Attikamek; it’s about the only language into which it hasn’t been translated] (30). Doubting Dave’s abilities as a Malécite to perform Shakespeare, Laerte also points out that Attikamek, the Native Huron language that Dave speaks (and in which excerpts from Hamlet are performed by rats during scene changes), is under erasure even by Québécois, which is itself a minority language whose erasure has been slowed to some extent only by the cultural recognition it has acquired internationally through the work of Michel Tremblay.
As an adaptation of Shakespeare, Hamlet-le-Malécite works within a mise-en-abyme. Dave, who wants desperately to play Hamlet, is both the character Dave, the actor Dave Jenniss, and a Hamlet figure who does not recognize the parallels between his life and the plot of Shakespeare’s play. Like Hamlet, he returns home from his studies when his mother Gertrude marries the new great chief Claudius following the murder of his absent father, the former chief Tony Bear. He falls in love with Ophélie whose brother Laerte has always harboured an incestuous desire for her. In his quest for his origins and to learn what it means to be a Native person and who can claim this identity, Dave meets paternal ghosts. The spirit of Tony Bear seems to manifest itself in Claudius’ backyard in the form of a bear carcass whose rotting smell signals the decrepitude of the community’s new beer-swilling, porn-obsessed chief. Dave also finds among his late father’s belongings a video of Leonard Peltier, a Native leader from North Dakota who has been wrongfully imprisoned since a tragic shoot-out in 1975 between the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the FBI. Dave’s real father, Tony Bear, fails however to provide the spiritual leadership that Dave finds in Peltier’s example of Native resistance to colonialist violence. Although subversive, Tony Bear’s strategy -- to attempt to father 500 children in response to 500 years of colonization, and to resist assimilation through sheer force of numbers -- was ultimately conceived by a “méchant malade” [real sicko] (70).
Hamlet-le-Malécite is thus marked throughout by a cynical dark humour that simultaneously resists the colonization of Native peoples through a critique of defeatism yet exposes nonetheless the sombre reality underlying that same defeatism. This double position of recognizing and seeking to overcome one’s own colonized status while tacitly accepting it and one’s place with the structures of power is embodied most forcefully in the character of Laerte. Laerte, who has a penchant for fine French wine but becomes sick from eating foie gras, is what Homi Bhabha would call a colonial mimic man; he is “almost but not quite” right or white (or in this case français de France). Dave’s desperate quest for his paternal origins leads him only to disaster and the discovery that his genealogy -- and the history of consanguinity of some First Nation communities, which, along with incest, is evoked throughout -- is much darker than he could have imagined. Laerte, on the other hand, rejects as futile any such dwelling on the past. Laerte’s cynical acceptance of the social construction of his identity by colonization harbours a critique but does not consume him to the point of immobility characteristic of Hamlet:
Moi, j’ai jamais su c’était qui mon père. Pis je veux pas le savoir, i peut rien faire pour moi. Quand je veux savoir qui je suis, je sort [sic] mon portefeuille... ...pis dedans y’a une carte que le gouvernement du Canada m’a donné [sic], avec ma photo dessus, qui dit que je fais partie des premières nations, ce qui me confère le même statut que les poteaux de téléphones et les parc nationaux.
[I never knew who my father was. And I don’t want to know; he can’t do anything for me. When I want to know who I am, I open my wallet… …and inside there’s a card that the government of Canada gave me, with my picture on it, which says that I belong to the First Nations, which confers on me the same status as telephone poles and national parks.] (78).
While the dark realization that Native peoples are little more than government property resounds with defeatism, Laerte refuses to be paralyzed by the system and attempts to exploit it as best he can: “Moi, je payes pas de taxes pis je suis ben content” [I don’t pay any taxes and I’m really happy.] (78).
Although Laerte’s espousal of neo-liberal values -- such as his support for Dave’s theatrical endeavour insofar as an evening cultural production will force tourists to reserve hotel rooms (33) -- may construct his character as a figure for the audience to distrust, his attempts to take on capitalism and reap profits for other members of his community nonetheless resonates loudly in the context of recent political agreements between First Nations and the Québec government, in particular the Paix des Braves [Peace of the Braves]. In Hamlet-le-Malécite, Laerte wants to make his community rich by selling pure drinking water to France after having used “cultural autonomy” as an excuse to get rid of Hydro-Québec (52). Accepted in principle in October 2001 and formally signed on 7 February 2002, the Paix des braves, an agreement between the Québec government and several Cree nations (deemed “historic” by its initiators but controversial by others), provided these Native peoples with $4.5 billion over fifty years and guaranteed technical jobs in exchange for Hydro-Québec’s right to develop new hydroelectric barrages in northern Québec, that is, to make money from water. As even Dave finds himself forced to concede, the future economic development of Native communities is dependent on the exploitation of the environment:
C’est vrai que les indiens d’aujourd’hui, on a compris : quand les colons sont arrivés, on leur a dit qu’on pouvait pas vendre notre territoire, fait qu’ils l’ont eu gratis. On s’est fait fourrer avec la terre, mais astheure check-nous ben faire la passe avec l’eau. On est lents, mais on comprend.
[It’s true that Indians today, we’ve understood: when the settlers arrived, we told them that we couldn’t sell our territory, so they took it for free. We got fucked over with the land, but now just watch us get one over with the water. We’re slow, but we understand.] (28)
Although more resistant, Dave too much subscribe to some extent to Laerte’s observation that since colonization has already ravaged the land and its peoples, the only way to survive and prosper is through a cautious manipulation of the system in which they find themselves.
Despite this sombre reality, Dave persists in his desire to play Hamlet, even abandoning Ophélie’s dead body so that the opening night show may go on. Sioui Durand explains that “Dave veut jouer Hamlet et pour lui, c’est une question de vie et de mort. Il lutte en nous plaçant devant son déchirement; c’est sa façon de résister à l’écroulement d’un monde factice et c’est pour cela qu’il veut faire du théâtre” [Dave wants to act Hamlet and for him it’s a question of life and death. He fights while situating us in front of his turmoil; it’s his way of resisting the collapse of a fake world and that’s why he wants to do theatre] (Program notes). Faced with death, art is all that remains; without it, Dave has no reason to go on. Through Dave’s final commitment to perform Hamlet after Ophélie’s death, the adaptation suggests that art may indeed be a healing medicine against suicide and what Sioui Durand calls “l’asphyxie culturelle” [cultural asphyxiation].
Hamlet-le-Malécite is not the first Québécois adaptation of Hamlet, nor is it likely to be the last. Robert Gurik’s Hamlet, prince du Québec (1968), the very first Québécois adaptation of Shakespeare following the Quiet Revolution, set the tone for subsequent Shakespearean adaptations that tend to focus on the theme of overcoming the Hamletian hesitation of inaction and defeatism in order for the Québec nation to reclaim its legitimate birthright. In light of this tradition, Hamlet is also an appropriate choice for First Nations adaptations of Shakespeare in both Québec and English Canada as Native peoples seek to reclaim lost land and rights. A more recent Québécois adaptation of Hamlet however, Robert Lepage’s Elsinore (1996), evacuates such questions of national identity in favour of the exposure of the constructedness of individual identity through the mechanical manipulation of characters in this one-man show. Hamlet-le-Malécite also seems to draw on this concern through Dave’s preoccupation with the question “c’est quoi que je suis?” [what am I?] (48).
Sioui Durand’s and Messier’s adaptation tackles, then, a complex range of issues. What constitutes Native identity and who can claim it? What is Québécois identity and can Natives lay claim to it? Can multiple national and ethnic identities co-exist peacefully in a single individual (given that Dave’s own mother accuses of him of being too Québécois )? The play explores not only cultural questions such as the nature and purpose of artistic creation, but also sociological questions such as incest and suicide, as well the history and economic impact of colonialism. Hamlet-le-Malécite thus exemplifies the enormous potential of contemporary adaptation to exploit Shakespeare’s canonical authority in the most positive way -- in order to draw attention to the pressing social issues of a marginalized community and to give voices to all those for whom theatre may become a survival strategy.
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