Women of the Fur Trade

Frances Koncan
Stratford Festival
Stratford Festival Theatre

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Joelle Peters as Eugenia, Kathleen MacLean as Marie-Angelique and Jenna-Lee Hyde as Cecilia Credit: David Hou
Jenna-Lee Hyde as Cecilia Credit: David Hou
Keith Barker as Louis Riel and Nathan Howe as Thomas Scott Credit: David Hou

Women of the Fur Trade, which played on stage in Stratford, Ontario in 2023, ticks not so much a postmodern box as a punk view of history, reminiscent of Broadway shows such as Hamilton or Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson but without the songs.

Its left-field vision uses lush, modern language and contemporary tropes, including anachronistic quotes and song extracts, as it looks at a revolutionary hero, Louis Riel played by Keith Barker, who became a local legend when he attempted to free Manitoba, Saskatchewan from colonial rule.

The first half hour considers “Métis Catholic” Riel and his sometimes friend, sometimes antagonist the “racist Irish Protestant” immigrant, Nathan Howe as Thomas Scott, from the distant perspective of a trio of women trapped in a fort at Manitoba’s Reddish River.

They too have conflicting outlooks, Jenna-Lee Hyde’s Cecilia, a respectable white housewife understanding the colonial viewpoint, Eugenia portrayed by Joelle Peters is, like Riel, an indigenous Métis, while their friend Marie-Angelique is mixed-race with a foot in both camps.

However, Kathleen MacLean’s character is the most strident when calling for freedom, but also worshipping the revolutionary with the kind of fervour of a teenager in love with a rockstar.

Interactions between the male and female groups primarily come by way of letters, which add additional confusion since they are frequently backed by half-truths.

Ultimately, love comes and goes, more in the mind than in the flesh, while history gradually impinges as the 1¾ hours play out.

This play, directed by Yvette Nolan, will probably mean more to Canadians who know the history than viewers around the world. Even so, it feature strong performances and is always witty, as well as making some trenchant points about feminine disempowerment in the second half of the 19th century, but also the issues faced by First Nations peoples when they were regarded as second-class citizens and prospective troublemakers on both sides of the US/Canadian border.

This video is available on the newly revamped and relaunched Stratfest@home web site in assorted formats up to the crystal clear 4K. The library is expanded and the pricing is just £6.44 per month or £64.47 for an annual subscription. It is a great treasure trove that will give fans of high-quality theatre hours of pleasure.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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