Culture Shock: Lippy’s explosive theatrical experiment

Bush Moukarzel’s show, a centrepiece of Dublin Fringe Festival, takes the biggest risk imaginable in the closed-in world of modish theatre-making: he adds the explosive element of reality, in the strange and horrible deaths of an aunt and her three adult nieces in Co Kildare in 2000

Sat, Sep 14, 2013, 01:00

The best put-down in theatrical history must be Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s reply to a young playwright: “Your play is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are good are not original and the parts that are original are not good.”

The problem of being both good and original has beset the theatrical avant-garde for some decades. Too often it has tended to assume that being “original”, in the sense of making a break from the literary play, is much more important than being “good”, in the sense of making a work that has some weight in the world. Bush Moukarzel’s Lippy, one of the centrepieces of Dublin Fringe Festival, is impressive because it manages to be both.

The original bit is, in broad terms, easy enough. It has by now very little to do with actual innovation. There’s a romper room of non-naturalistic theatrical devices that is raided over and over. Most of those devices belong to what we might call the retro avant-garde – a long-ago version of what it meant to be radically experimental in the 1920s and 1930s.

Artaud, Brecht, Pirandello, Piscator and Meyerhold are now almost as distant in time as Chekhov, but their techniques (stripped of political content) are still presented as if shockingly new. Add some mock Beckett, some (preferably wordless) physicality, some digital technology, a fractured narrative, self-reference and some postmodern pastiche, and you have a recipe for the theatrical equivalent of snail porridge: tasty morsels of outrage for the jaded palate.

Lippy has all of these. It is “created” by Moukarzel, not “written”. It presents itself as literally postdramatic: the opening gambit is that what we are seeing is a postshow discussion between Moukarzel and Daniel Reardon, one of the actors in a show, about lip-reading that we have not, of course, seen. It makes extensive use of clips from YouTube and from the movies Casino and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It highlights a change in the pecking order of authorship: the estimable dramatist Mark O’Halloran is credited as “cameo playwright”. It keeps the audience at an emotional distance by changing rules and shifting forms with such regularity that we cannot settle down within any given set of conventions.

So far, so traditionally radical, so conservatively postmodern. But Lippy is much, much better than the run-of-the-mill theatrical “experiment”. It recombines the familiar elements of the avant-garde playbook in genuinely interesting ways. More importantly, it has weight. Something is at stake. Moukarzel takes the biggest risk that can be imagined in the closed-in world of modish theatre-making: he adds the explosive element of reality.

Lippy is a meditation on something that actually happened: the strange and horrible deaths of four women in Leixlip in 2000. Frances Mulrooney, who was 83, and her three adult nieces – 46-year-old Josephine and 51-year-old twins Catherine and Ruth – barricaded themselves into their house, shredded personal documents and, over 36 days, starved themselves to death.

The deaths were deeply mysterious and utterly jarring. The house was in an estate in a town dominated by vast Intel plants. Gardaí initially believed they had died because the heating had malfunctioned. Neighbours knew little about the women except they hung religious pictures in their window. The nearest thing to an explanation was a letter from Ruth to her sister saying none of them could have thought “our deaths would be so slow and while the idea of ascending into heaven together is a good one, we did not envisage this”.

It is easy to imagine a naturalistic play about these terrible events and to imagine how crass it might be. It would have to put words in their mouths, to make them explain themselves, to impose some kind of rational cause-and-effect narrative on what happened inside the house and inside the women’s minds. What makes Lippy powerful is that it has very real aesthetic and moral reasons for not being that kind of play. It is, indeed, a play about why such a play should not be written. Hence the clever prologue about “lip-reading” – literally putting words into people’s mouths – connects very strongly with the main sequence of action inside the house. This makes it theatrically self-referential at one level but serious and urgent at another.

Lippy is not perfectly judged. It takes refuge in miming to tacky songs too often. The culminating close-up on Gina Moxley’s mouth as she speaks O’Halloran’s rhythmic monologue is so self-consciously a pastiche of Beckett’s Not I that the parallel is badly distracting and the emotional focus is blurred. But most of what happens is brilliantly conceived and superbly achieved.

It is notable that the part of the show that is most potent is the sequence in the house, which also has the closest connection to an imagined reality. The four women, beautifully embodied by Moxley, Joanna Banks, Catríona Ní Mhurchú and Liv O’Donoghue, are never envisaged as characters. Any speech they are allowed is distorted. They move in a deliberately flat choreography, so that they float somewhere between ordinary gesture and dance. This also allows them to hover between the real and unreal, presence and absence. Lippy achieves a strangely visceral ghostliness.

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