Newfoundland comes to Toronto. A tremendous Soulpepper opening, the other night, of David French’s Of the Fields, Lately. This is the second part of the trilogy at the heart of the playwright’s Mercer series (they amount to five, in all, and a sixth is in the works), and the third to have been produced by Soulpepper — Leaving Home and Salt Water Moon are the others — with mostly the same cast.
This was an exciting night for many reasons: French is gaining a new and deserved place in the Canadian canon and, on the night, Albert Schultz, the artistic director of Soulpepper was taking note, challenging members of the audience and the party afterwards to come up with a list of 10 plays for an all-Canadian season — something that would effect a marked change of direction for a company that has, since its inception a decade ago dedicated itself to the “classics.” (Schultz is also taking steps towards a new translation of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs, likely by a Newfoundlander.)
And the other reason the evening was so interesting is that French’s opening was combined with the official launch of Newfoundland writer Lisa Moore’s new novel, February. For once a book launch felt not like a commercial event launched by a publisher, or as a sop thrown the way of an author already not expected to perform well (journalists in attendance for the free drinks and canapés), but had the convincing feel of an authentic cultural evening.
The play gave all the chance to truly contemplate ties between French and Moore that were authentic, as well as the differences between them and their work —French having left, and the son Ben Mercer in his autobiographical stage family struggling to make his own exit, but Moore having stayed on. I can think of no writer from the Rock for whom leaving is less of a question. Sure, there are a couple of the early stories that take place off the island — in the waters off St Pierre and Micquelon, and another in Toronto in which the lead realizes that her friend will not be coming back (memory feels so unreliable after a while, I think these are fair assessments). But in the rest of her work, as in February, not only does everything take place in Newfoundland but the details of life there are lovingly attended to and bathed in context.
February (House of Anansi, 320 pp. $29.95) is the story of Helen, married to Cal, a worker on the Ocean Ranger oil rig and impregnated by him before his last fateful turnaround. The Ocean Ranger, you will remember, was supposed to be unsinkable but was lost on Valentine’s Day, 1982, all 84 of its Newfoundland crew perishing with it. It’s a marvelous, tempered and passionate book. It opens with a simple skate-sharpening scene that builds into the profoundly moving moment of the congregation at the St John’s Basilica that assembled after the disaster. (Moore was not there. She told me that she’d made an early decision to speak to no one who was actually involved. I understand that.)
You read this scene, and you think: skates are sharpened at hockey rinks all over Canada, why has no one else brought this scene to life so vividly before? And then you think it again, and again, as when Helen contemplates an online dating application and Moore makes brilliant sense of her still broken heart’s plaintive agenda.
Here are a few words I recorded at the Soulpepper opening with Lisa Moore, and a bit of the reading she did afterwards. It’s a brilliant book. Moore, by the way, is doing a brunch in Montreal at the Paragraphe bookstore on October 4th.