Saturday, 21 November 2015

A kind of December

Kate Hennig and Paul Rainville
Photo: Andrew Alexander
At the end of the first scene of The December Man, I thought to myself: Oh gawd. I read the review. I forgot that it's backwards. We had just seen a tableau of quiet despair, and lost all hope of anything getting better.

In the late 1970s, Harold Pinter wrote a very famous play called Betrayal, which follows the course of a doomed love affair, but in reverse chronology. The effect is devastating. With each scene, the narrative takes a step back in time and audience knows what's coming. As a result, the last scene, which begins with the seduction, lacks any thrill or eroticism because we've just witnessed the resulting heartbreak.

However, The December Man cranks up the agony several more notches, because it is about the aftermath of a mass murder.

Six years ago, I wrote a post about the École Polytechnique de Montréal massacre, a watershed moment in Canadian history when a man with a rifle entered an engineering class on an early December evening in 1989, told the men to leave and shot the nine remaining women, killing six of them. By the time he shot himself, he had murdered eight more women, and wounded ten women and four men. I was frantic because wounded people are never named in news reports and several of my male Québecois ESL summer students were studying at L'École Polytechnique in the winter. There were no emails, text, or web sites in 1989, so I had to fire off letters. It turned out all my former students were safe and none had been present at the shootings. It was clear though, that nothing would ever be the same, not for those who never dreamed of such a thing happening in Canada, not for the families of the slain women, not for the wounded students, nor for the men who were forced to leave the classroom, and heard the shots and screams.

The "December Man" is a fictional student named Jean, an only child who lives with his working class parents and is their pride, joy, and hope. He is one of the male engineering students in that classroom, and in inexorable reverse order, his breakdown, and those of his parents is played out. The story would have been difficult to watch from start to finish. From finish to start, it's almost unbearable.

Ottawa audiences, it seems, will give standing ovations for any competent performance. Maybe it's a desire to be fair, or to be liked, or to justify the money spent on the tickets. This time, the performances of the three actors (Kayvon Kelly as Jean; Kate Hennig and Paul Rainville as his parents) achieving a portrayal of decent people doing their best and falling short - and managing to do this in reverse order, no less - warranted everyone rising to their feet, applauding while struggling with a 26-year-old tragedy that many of us still remember, and the fresher impressions of recent horrors.

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