Review: Elle (Theatre Passe Muraille)


Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille presents Severn Thompson’s nuanced and clever play, Elle

“You cannot inhabit without being inhabited.”

Such is the resounding message of Elle, playing now at Theatre Passe Muraille, the defiant tale of a French aristocrat stranded on an island off the east coast of Canada. While our heroine survives by sheer force of will and grasps onto her sanity with only her sharp wit, Elle explores how a land inevitably changes a person, deeply and irreversibly.

Set in the year 1542, amidst France’s attempt to colonize and conquer Canada, Elle starts off the story on a ship sailing towards the New World. Sent away for being unruly and hard headed, Elle proves herself so upon the ship. As punishment, or perhaps out of jealousy, her uncle the Governor casts her, her lover and her nurse off onto the deserted Island of Demons to fend for themselves in the rough Canadian Wilderness.

Severn Thompson, who adapted the play from the original novel by Douglas Glover and plays the role of Elle, is absolutely captivating. In what is essentially a one-woman show, minus about ten minutes, Thompson holds the audience’s attention in a vice grip with her precision, depth and hilarity. Her script it beautifully poetic, and she is a master of its delivery. Through her words and conviction, she creates a landscape and characters that were as vivid and clear as if they had been on stage with her.

In fact, it was only when another actor joined her on stage that I was drawn out of the world Thompson created. When Itslk, played by Jonathan Fisher, breaks Elle’s solitude, I felt my belief in the world break as well. In the face of the deeply personal relationship Thompson had created wit the audience, the presence of someone else on stage felt like an intrusion. Once this scene was over, I was drawn right back in, but I feel the continuity of the show might have been better off without it.

The script itself was nuanced and clever. While the character of Elle has a refreshingly modern-feeling take on the world, it is firmly grounded in her time period and circumstance. She is often hilarious and retains her cynical wit throughout the play, yet the script never losses touch with the grotesque and dangerous realities of her situation. The play moves with agility from Elle whacking birds with a tennis racket for entertainment to the deeply disturbing deaths of everyone around her, encompassing a wide range of experience with skill and grace.

Helping with these transitions and the overall flow of the show was the production design, by Jennifer Goodman, and the sound design, by Lyon Smith. Elle’s costume transformed into almost every set and prop piece used and was a stunning display of minimalistic design at it’s best. The sound was mostly modern and electric sounding, which juxtaposed nicely against the time frame to create the atmosphere of the island.

Theatre Passe Muraille’s Elle is a thrilling tale deeply entrenched in Canadian history and spirit, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. You will witness the great change this land can invoke, and will likely be changed yourself.


  • Elle is playing at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue) until January 31st
  • Shows are at 7 30pm with 2pm Matinees on weekends
  • Tickets range from $17 to $38
  • Tickets can be bought online, through the Box Office (416 504 7529) or at the door

Photo of Severn Thompson by Michael Cooper