Written by Bush Moukarzel
Performed by Dead Centre
Reviewed by Ashley McGovern
Herbert Blau once said that actors, when on stage, are literally “dying before your eyes”. I think he was talking about how an actor’s mortality is always there, a slow diminution unfolds, right before us, as they ply their trade. I’m not sure how deep that really is. This is the guy who, in 1957, staged Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in California’s San Quentin State Prison (an oft-cited footnote in books on theatre production). Did they think Godot couldn’t make it because he was in solitary?
However sage Blau’s observation may be, the drift of it haunts Dead Centre’s Lippy. Most of the play runs as a time-lapsed suicide pact between four members of the Malone family, an 83-year old aunt and her three middle-aged nieces. This is based on a real-life tragedy that took place in 2000 in Leixlip, Co Kildare. The mystery was widely covered. The essence of the story, the spare, anchoritic lives of the women, their sad petrification after 40 days of refusing food and water, makes its way into Bush Mouzarkel’s script.
Profiles offered up by neighbours in the course of inquiry paint the women as quiet, respectful, religious. They were lifer recluses, all of them. Over the course of the 40-day pact, they disposed of their collective belongings as discreetly as themselves, leaving behind numerous bin bags of shredded papers. Dead Centre have deduced from this that the Malone women wanted to nullify any attempt, through detective or psychoanalytic means, to arrive at a motive; that the pact taken was like an injunction designed to prevent surmise. This literary tact deforms their little tale. The play is bound in an amber of equivocation. Taking the dead at their word is always a mistake. Let’s just be grateful that Dead Centre weren’t named executors of Kafka’s will.
We open in reverse – a Q&A with an “actor” in the still-unseen show. Our interviewer, played by Mouzarkel, is smug, pompous and ingratiating, a real Melvyn Braggadocio. The egotistical edge he brings to the scene, and for that matter the whole Q&A, isn’t funny or interesting. It certainly doesn’t relate to the story as proposed, or the one we eventually get to see. The writers use this merely as a chance to propose their literary-ethical triteness i.e. we can’t speak for them, but perhaps we can, so what you’ll see is jittery clever-clever trespass. This is the first sniff of lip-reading (remember the title), too. The “actor” kindly sets up the group’s artistry, their propositions and dichotomies, for us. We hear how lip reading is a slippery practice: in the right hands it can illuminate someone’s voice; its obvious imperfections, however, can never guarantee a fair and true mimesis – at its worst, it can misrepresent beyond recovery. And there we are: Dead Centre must be the first theatre troupe to write their own SparkNotes.
When the action begins proper, it could have gone down the road of recreated realism (and become like a seance at Grey Gardens, perhaps) or ponderous post-modern post-mortem. Guess which. The stage is spare; the bin bags are present but prone to levitation. Four figures in forensic hazard gear enter, and after a short clear-up routine unzip their uniforms to reveal the four Malones. The rest is a stilted tableaux of people inching towards death.
The acting is entirely blank, there’s no evidence of self-examination in the performance and each of the female performers looks distantly off stage, stone-faced, insensibly empty – like they’re all rubbernecking the car crash in Godard’s Weekend. Dialogue, when it does appear, is taken from partial letters and suicide notes left behind. One of the nieces gives a speech to suggest torment and spiritual agony, which is fairly good. As silent theatre goes,
watching them shuffle and rearrange on stage, it tries too hard. At one point they upturn a kitchen table so its legs are fixed, length-wise, to the rear wall, around which the women sit and we watch as from a birds-eye view. None of this feels necessary, believable or even illustrative.
To drum its humbled meta-tact into the audience’s mind, Dead Centre have the Q&A “actor” from the start of the evening enter into the Malone’s living space. He bursts through one of the bin bags. Like a fourth-wall Ariel, he watches, equivocates and agitates in equal measure. First, he appears horrified to be there, glued to the back wall (more rubbernecking); then he stalks around; he lips reads poorly, of course, and also transforms into a berating father figure (the actual father these women are scared of? God the father?). I’m sure the team thought he would represent tabloidised interest, a ghostly apparition and stand-in confessor all in one. This would be a really smart touch. As it stands he’s an irritating abstraction.
So if lip reading is the proxy of playwriting, the dangers that lie in wait for writers who absent themselves of fearsome literary humility, then what’s the answer? How can you tell the story like this? Well, by playwriting. Does that sound circular? To finish the team change media entirely: a 10 minute video of one sister, the most vocal, talking about her bittersweet childhood. We see only her mouth moving. The lips are elephantiasised before us, meeting and parting over the course of a fey monologue that, unlike earlier verbatim moments, is entirely scripted. The homage to Beckett’s Not I is blatant. The screed is unenlightened third-rate Irish balladry. Flowers, mothering, and drunk fathers. Angela will be turning in her ashes.
So let’s lay this out. Lippy examines, with all varieties of caution, the last days of the Malone women – it tells us openly from the start the dangers that lie therein. And yet the way to finish the piece is by writing a gauche, sentimentalised, parodistic monologue for a dead person? By reading about the play, you can pinpoint exactly where this went wrong. At gestation, Mouzarkel and Ben Kidd had the idea (let’s not dignify it with thought-experiment) of getting stage actors to lip read the words of extras in movies. Legions of poorly paid walk-ons would have their unheard vocables in the open, at last. What would happen? Empowerment, oppression etc etc.
But this wasn’t enough. The story of the Leixlip four had stayed with Mouzarkel after he read about the tragedy many years before. That was it: use the Malone’s dying days to show lip reading (read playwriting) at its weakest and, eventually, its strongest. Dubious, dull and metatheatrical in all the wrong ways. I’ll go and check if Herbert Blau ever mentioned playwrights dying in front of our eyes.