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Review: Have I No Mouth

Project Arts Centre – Cube

To anybody already familiar with the serious intent behind Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan’s playful approach to theatre, this riveting new show from Brokentalkers will still come as some surprise. It isn’t just that Cannon, who appears onstage with his mother and their psychotherapist, has mined a painful history for raw material or anticipated our defences against onstage therapy. It’s that he can transform an acutely personal story into something universal.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Cannon, fluently wry and attractively flip, didn’t have it in him, because that is the production’s opinion too. “I don’t see the point of talking about all the depressing, horrible shit,” he objects early on, when his mother Ann has presented a series of objects relating first to the loss of her third son, Sean, hours after his birth, and then her husband, also Sean, whose death could have been prevented.

That this comes amid a clutter of props and dispassionately reported details under Sarah Jane Shiels candy-coloured lights and an audience relaxation exercise conducted by their gentle therapist Erich Keller (who must have put in a lot of overtime), suggests that not only is Cannon reluctant to express deeper emotion, so are the devices of contemporary theatre. Over the course of the show, though, that resistance supplies an utterly compelling friction, one that is equal to the emotional wattage of the material.

Under the therapist’s watch and with his participation, Feidlim and Ann play out their fraught relationship in exchanges touching, funny and sad: “Are you telling me you don’t believe in God?” asks the devout Ann. “Well I don’t believe that.” Both therapy and the theatre allow them to revisit events – Cannon as an angry five-year-old asking how someone could “lose” a child; Ann presented under the ice of depression; a recreated Christmas scene in which Keller, bandaged and mute, substitutes for Cannon’s father. Some of these sequences are
balanced so precariously on a knife-edge between comedy and trauma they create an emotional short circuit. I found myself choking up, defenceless, as the fatal misdiagnosis of Cannon father was explained via the cartoon anatomy of a game of Operation.

Following the emotional heft of 2009’s Silver Stars and the urgency of last year’s The Blue Boy, this may be Brokentalkers most concentrated, angry and discreetly political show yet. In the heartwrenching remonstrations of its later sequences, which choreographer Eddie Kay gives a visceral punch, all authority figures – parents, doctors, even theatre makers – are put through the wringer, and in those gestures Cannon and Keegan are taking their art into bold new territory. “I wanted to write a play about healing,” Cannon says early on, and though one achievement is to bring catharsis to the contemporary theatre, another is to recognise – with generosity and compassion – how to transform our broader suffering.

Until Oct 6th
– Peter Crawley

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