Lippy lads: A meditation on meaninglessness
If a suicide pact in Leixlip was a pointless tragedy, how can an experimental theatre maker and a traditional playwright make sense of it?
Theatre maker Bush Moukarzel (left) and playwright Mark O’ Halloran. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
‘You need to try this, Mark,” says the theatre maker to the playwright.
Bush Moukarzel is standing in the middle of a room strewn with mounds of shredded paper, pulsing the engine of a leaf blower. Mark O’Halloran smiles, takes the machine from him, and begins to whip the confetti into a blizzard. “I f***ing love it,” he says.
The main theatre of the Lir already resembles a picture of chaos: chalk outlines of bulbous human figures stretch across its black wall like bloated paper dolls; ceramic coffee cups have broken rims like cartoon bite marks; and all around the space, black bin bags sag and slump. “The corners are very effective,” advises Moukarzel, the creator of the new show Lippy, and as O’Halloran, who is writing one scene for the production, steers the paper into an updraft, it feels for a moment like being trapped in the world’s strangest snow globe.
This moment of abandon comes as some relief, following a rigorous rehearsal with the performer Gina Moxley as she delivers O’Halloran’s monologue: the disturbed words of a woman who has chosen to die. Moukarzel’s company, Dead Centre, co-founded with the director Benn Kidd, made its debut at the Dublin Fringe Festival last year with Souvenir, Moukarzel’s brilliantly cluttered one-man riff on Marcel Proust’s magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu. This was followed by (S)quark!, a work inspired by James Joyce. Now Moukarzel has found a story somehow harder to tell and more troubling to adapt.
In 2000, the 83-year-old Frances Mulrooney and her three adult nieces barricaded themselves into their home in Leixlip, shredded every personal document, donned matching nightdresses and – over the course of 36 days – starved themselves to death. How could Moukarzel, a fresh talent fluent in the engagingly estranging ways of contemporary theatre, make sense of such a tragedy? How could O’Halloran, a stately and sensitive writer of fiction for stage and screen, give it a shape? That, however, was not really their intention.
“I certainly would never have chosen the material,” admits O’Halloran when I ask about his participation (he is credited as “cameo playwright”). “Because there’s something so absolutely meaningless about it. She’s not a martyr. She hasn’t sacrificed herself for the things we’ve lost in the modern age. She’s a woman who died in a really ugly way – and she chose it. There’s no attempt to hammer that into a shape to make us say, Oh, I have an amazing insight into myself now. You try to find somebody’s voice within that situation and find out what their realisations are before they move towards death. It was incredibly difficult.”
The story, moreover, had already been well scrutinised; by coroner’s reports and legal verdicts, newspaper think pieces and television documentaries. Meanings had already rushed in to fill a vacuum and explain away its horror.
Instead, Moukarzel took a more circuitous approach, beginning with the imagined story of a lip-reader who assisted the Garda investigation into the circumstances of these women’s death – and has been haunted by them ever since. “That idea was a bit of a breakthrough,” says the character of the lip-reader, in a sequence archly framed as a post-show discussion to a performance we never see: “The power of putting words in people’s mouths.” That is also the prerogative of a playwright, Moukarzel decided, and so he enlisted the services of O’Halloran.
“Our approach to the whole story was not only how to tell it,” Moukarzel says, “but to ask what right we had to tell this story. So the condensed image of that is putting words in people’s mouths, which, in general, seems to be what playwrights do. That’s their job – they’re professional liars. And if they’re good at it, the lie is like a good-enough truth.”
Moukarzel’s conversation is witty, rapid fire and relentlessly cerebral, with a pronounced taste for the experimental. In casual conversation with O’Halloran, the two briskly discuss the literary experiments of Kenneth Goldsmith, Padgett Powell and Jonathan Safran Foer, and while Moukarzel happily enthuses about Goldsmith’s wackier experiments (“He tried to print off the internet”), O’Halloran remains unmoved (“These people have spent too long in college”). They get on surprisingly well.
“The charge towards meaning and to say something which has easy coherence is a really necessary fantasy,” considers Moukarzel. “Real experience, outside of art, is chaotic. The truthful situation doesn’t have a single voice; it’s cacophony. The playwright harmonises all that into a series of lines, exchanges or a monologue, because we have to do that to make sense of situations, to learn lessons. Because otherwise it’s a noise box.”
‘Get out of the way’
Like any cameo appearance – a supposedly invisible inclusion which, as Moukarzel admits “always steals the show” – O’Halloran’s participation draws attention to the artifice of a performance.
“I think playwrights, more and more, should just get out of the way,” says O’Halloran, yet Moukarzel, who enjoys exposing the apparatus of theatre for startling effect, is hardly trying to conceal him. “In the midst of this project, which is a cacophony and a circling around of this event, comes the arrival of a playwright. You see that we’re admitting our role in it, the artifice of it, but also, hopefully, the benevolent artifice in it.”
Late last year, during a debate about contemporary Irish theatre that spread like wildfire on the internet, Moukarzel briefly resembled an unofficial spokesman for contemporary performance. In an interview with The Irish Times in November, the actor Aaron Monaghan described his frustration with theatre “being made for a very particular, young, hip audience; shows about the theatre itself”, where “everyone is playing a version of themselves and there are only 40 people in the audience”. In a letter to the paper that was never published, but widely circulated online, Moukarzel wrote in defence of experimental avant-garde aesthetics, with reference to Meyerhold and Piscator and Joyce, and suggested that the traditional and the contemporary “do not have to be at war with each other – but a theatrical landscape that favours one at the expense of the other really would be a culture in crisis”. It’s tempting to see Lippy – with its arresting postdramatic devices and a play smuggled into its structure – as an effort to bridge that divide.
“We’re all going for the same thing, even if the strategy and technique is different,” says Moukarzel: “Effect, connection, truth and honesty. Who isn’t going for that? If they aren’t then they’re making bad art.”
Moukarzel, a compelling performer with a face as chiselled as an Easter Island statue, has a sense of irony and self-reference that fans of Pan Pan (for whom Moukarzel has played several versions of himself) and Charlie Kaufman will appreciate. But Lippy is more persuasively influenced by darker material; the frantic mouth of Beckett’s Not I or the threat of “nothingness” at the heart of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Respecting the event
“I think art has a subject, which is meaninglessness,” says Moukarzel, sounding both energised and categorical. “Art takes seriously what meaningless means. That has another name, which is death. Theatre is death, death, death – it’s gotta be. So rather than do a play [about the Leixlip suicides], which would be a pseudo-journalistic event whereby you offer up an interpretation, an artist’s contribution could be a meditation on meaninglessness. If you give that room to breathe it actually becomes a way of respecting the event, because there’s a dignity in their death. Explaining it away almost closes it down.”
Lippy runs at the Lir from Tuesday until Saturday as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival, fringefest.com