The Guid Sisters, adapted from Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs and translated into Scots by Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay, takes place in real time. Yet the staging appears undeniably off-beat, setting us up for the surreal.
We are transported to 1960s Montreal, where the curtain – furnished with a window to aid a very sneaky breach of the fourth wall – rises on Germaine Lauzon’s stamp-sticking party. Having won a million Green Shield stamps, Germaine (Kathryn Howden) has enlisted the help of her two sisters and a gaggle of jealous friends and neighbours to put them into booklets so she can cash-in “the whole bloody catalogue”.
So begins a classically Brechtian sensory feast that engages the audience in riotous laughter and equally audible flashes of collective horror at moments such as the shameless domestic violence endured by neighbour Therese’s elderly mother-in-law. We are kept guessing right to the end, wondering if she will be given the spotlight in her own monologue. Tremblay deals in extremes; raw human emotion threatens to burst apart the strictly defined moral hierarchy. Each line is delivered in broad Scots, whilst respecting the remaining French pronounciations in a perfect compromise. This creates a unique world, yet one we instantly recognise. We learn nothing new about the lives and times of struggling working-class housewives but we hang on their every word. The French art of telling-it-like-it-is crucially underpins the unfolding storylines, and the translation into Scots only enriches the flavour.
With a cast of reliably funny women including Karen Dunbar, Maureen Carr and Jane McCarry, the storytelling is the crème de la crème. The occasional cheap gag is easily forgiven, and the slight repetitiveness in the first act is remedied by the second act, where drunken younger sister Pierette makes a convincing bid to steal the show. The gorgeous use of Sprechgesang eases us into a fully fledged Greek chorus in response to Pierette’s sudden arrival – it’s a shame we couldn’t hear all the lyrics above the background music, but the gist is enough. Karen Dunbar hits the mark meticulously with a straight-played and tear-jerking elaboration on the screaming neon backstory her character has already established, and there’s a powerful and dark parallel monologue between Lisa Gardner and Hannah Donaldson. And of course, it wouldn’t be the National Theatre of Scotland without a concluding clean-up operation – here, accompanied by Burns’s ‘A Man’s A Man for A’ That’.
To coin the National Theatre of Scotland’s tagline, The Guid Sisters gives us “theatre without walls” – a smörgåsbord of evolving conventions. A rare treat, this is not to be missed.
The Guid Sisters plays at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow until 27 October. For more information, see www.nationaltheatrescotland.com.