I believe that corruption is a systemic problem all over the globe today
One of my favourite Montreal theatre companies is at it again and it’s not a moment too soon. Hot on the heels of the latest scandals regarding Quebec’s construction industry comes a remount of “Sexy Beton”, Porte Parole’s scathing expose of the shameful behind-the-scenes shenanigans that followed the collapse of the Concorde overpass in Laval. The play will tour Quebec until mid-December and the timing couldn’t be better: just as Jean Charest prepares to launch an investigation, playwright Annabel Soutar is already out there showing him how it’s done.
We are complicit in this game
“I believe that corruption is a systemic problem all over the globe today,” Annabel told me via email. “I feel like the world has given up on the idea of absolute morality.” She’s quick to add that she doesn’t blame Charest or his government for all the problems in our society. “We are complicit in this game,” she added. “It’s easier to play along.”
Sexy Beton is just the latest in a long string of documentary theatre from both Annabel and Porte Parole, which she helped to found over a decade ago. Time and again, she’s gone out of her way to explore and expose the true stories at the heart of our political, medical and corporate world. Given that all the dialogue in Sexy Beton (and her other works) is directly transcribed from interviews or press clippings – known as “verbatim theatre” - it might be tempting to ignore Annabel’s gifts as a playwright. But this would be unfair.
we are always conscious of the actors “playing” real people
Part of the conceit of Sexy Beton is the metatheatrical presence of two actors (played by Brett Watson and Maude Laurendeau-Mondoux) who serve as narrators / investigators. This is a clever technique, which Annabel often employs (sometimes she even throws herself into the piece, as she did with both Seeds (2005) and Import / Export (2008)). Documentary theatre is by definition metatheatrical since, as Annabel herself pointed out, we are always conscious of the actors “playing” real people. Her shows, then, are both about the story and the quest to uncover the story: both have an impact on us and both play a vital role in the play’s dramatic arc.
Like all playwrights, Annabel is continually faced with condensing a lot of big ideas into an endurable night at the theatre. “Almost every decision in the theatre sits in a combat zone between the artistic and the practical,” she told me. This principle was put to the test with Sexy Beton, which began as a trilogy. These three works have been amalgamated into a single show and it’s this new piece that has gone on tour. Annabel is convinced they have emerged from the process with a stronger show. “Plays are almost too long,” she said. “Theatre almost always benefits from cuts.”
Annabel saw both a David and Goliath story
Documentary theatre has been a large part of modern theatre, beginning with Bertolt Brecht and continuing in recent years most notably with Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project, Gross Indecency). Given how long it takes to produce a show, authors of documentary theatre must continually grapple with the issue of relevance: their story must be specific and yet contain themes that remain universal.
Annabel has a great gift in this regard. Her play Seeds still remains one of the finest pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a decade. Based on events from 1998, the play was performed in 2005 and will receive a remount in Toronto in 2012. Its topic? A Saskatchewan farmer is sued by Monsanto Inc. for patent infringement. Most people would see a dull legal drama; but Annabel saw both a David and Goliath story and the tale of corporate interference in the agricultural world. It’s a theme that is all too relevant as we are faced with even more genetically modified food and the continual problem of how food will be farmed to fill our over-populated world.
Which brings me back to Sexy Beton, another piece which is (sadly) all too relevant. Corruption never goes away. Take the story of Christine Yotis who was fighting the demolition of her restaurant. Despite having a scheduled court hearing to contest the matter, she woke one morning to find the building had been destroyed in the night – with all her belongings still inside. This may seem like a minor story when compared to the other accusations swirling around Quebec’s construction industry; but like the collapse of the Concorde overpass, it points to a wilful disregard for the lives of people affected by the decisions of bureaucrats and developers.
Click here to view Porte Parole’s touring schedule.