‘Bad choices make good stories’: Margaret Trudeau brings her show to Just for Laughs

Trudeau says over the decades she has been suicidal, manic, depressed

Margaret Trudeau says one of the goals of her one-woman show is to kill the conventional wisdom around what is, and isn’t, a play.

Trudeau says she may even bring her script on stage to read off of, when she takes “Certain Woman of an Age” to Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival for its three-night run at the end of the month.

“One of the things our team wanted to do with this show was, kind of, murder the pretence of ‘the play,’” Trudeau explained during a recent interview in Montreal. “Because I’m not here to fool you. I’m not acting. This is the truth I’m talking.”

Her truth has been fascinating people for decades, from the time she secretly married then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1971 at age 22, to her unabashed tales of partying with famous people while living with untreated bipolar disorder.

Trudeau’s show is funny, tragic, and interactive, she said. “People cry. People laugh — a lot,” added Trudeau, referring to the audience who attended the first series of performances last May at Chicago’s Second City club. Her son, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, came to one of the shows.

“Certain Woman of an Age” is partly in the mould of a 2017 documentary featuring American comedian, Chris Gethard. Trudeau said she was impressed with the entertainer, “who stood on the stage for an hour-and-a-half and talked very funnily about his attempted suicide and his attempts to get better.”

Trudeau’s play and that film, “Chris Gethard: Career Suicide,” share a director: Kimberly Senior. “(That show) was so poignant,” Trudeau said, “that when I was offered this, and Kimberly Senior to be my director and follow that path, I said: ‘Yes, of course.’”

Trudeau says over the decades she has been suicidal, manic, depressed, and at times, absent from the people she loved. “Certain Woman of an Age” discusses all of those difficult moments.

Her mental illness “really came on when I was deep in my marriage with Pierre,” she said, when the unfamiliar, lonely and isolating life of a young prime minister’s wife began to take its toll.

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When her marriage began falling apart in the second half of the 1970s, Trudeau took off to travel the world — “hobnobbing” as she describes it — with the rich and famous. The manic highs offered by her illness were wonderfully exciting, she said, followed by deep lows that “steal away your life.”

But “Certain Woman of an Age” isn’t all about bipolar disorder, she said. “No, no. It’s just my reality. I’m talking about my life. My experiences. It’s fun. It’s different.”

The audience is treated to stories about her encounters, including how Trudeau felt insulted and patronized by Pope John Paul II. The pontiff reportedly spoke in detail to Pierre Trudeau about politics and then turned to pat her on the head, congratulating her for having children.

The show also mentions her partying with rebel rocker Mick Jagger, with whom she posed with in a photo when the Rolling Stones came to Toronto in 1977, which became news at the time.

“Bad choices make good stories,” Trudeau said with a smile.

And if she regrets any of her decisions she doesn’t seem to spend time ruminating over them. “I love the life I’ve had,” she said. “I have five of the most beautiful children. I have nine grandchildren.”

Her pride in the traditional female role of mother is juxtaposed with a drive to be free of the conventions others have attempted to impose on her. She is a feminist, and credits her mother with instilling in her a desire to be independent.

“We were the first generation of women who looked at our mothers, and our mothers looked at us and said: ‘This isn’t the way you’re going to live. You’re going to have a life.’”

Her mother told her to get a job and to be independent before choosing a partner. “Because we couldn’t just serve a man for the rest of our lives like our mothers always did — unflinchingly, unfailingly, and well — but there is another role for women that had been denied to us.”

Her force of character ran up against tradition, and it conflicted with the way the former prime minister saw her role as his wife, she said.

“I don’t think Pierre Trudeau knew how to be a husband,” she said. “I couldn’t stay in that marriage. What woman can — when you’re so young — to be told you have to change into something you’ve fought all your life not to be.” After years of being estranged from one another they officially divorced in 1984.

Sitting on a balcony overlooking Montreal’s cultural and arts district, Trudeau’s eyes grew wide she began talking about the positive reviews of her show from Conservative-leaning publications in Canada that haven’t historically been kind to her — or to some of the men in her famous family.

“There is kindness,” Trudeau said. “What I’m talking about is beyond politics and beyond division and beyond judgement. What I’m talking about is the pain that one lives in with mental illness if one doesn’t seek treatment.”

“Certain Woman of an Age” runs July 25-27 at Montreal’s Gesu theatre.

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Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press

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