Brokentalkers break their own free-form traditions

In two productions, the maverick theatre group tackle big ideas about national identity, ‘which is really based on the idea that some people are better than others’


The Brokentalkers gang, who are famously known for their non-narrative, abstract theatrical style, have written a play. “Yeah, I know,” says one-half of the company, Gary Keegan, as if he still can’t quite believe it. “It’s not exactly the usual dynamic for us.”

This Beach, a surreal satiric comedy about the international refugee crisis, is currently at the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival.

“All our projects are preceded by a conversation,” Keegan says during a quick coffee break from rehearsals in the Lab on Foley Street. “Well, usually a series of conversations, about what issues we feel need to be tackled in the theatre, and what we kept coming back to again and again was the refugee crisis. We really wanted to make something that would respond to that.

“When you see the images on the news, hear people’s stories, it is something of such unbelievable magnitude, and the world just seems to be continuing on unaffected. If you play those two realities in parallel, it creates a sort of short-circuit in your brain. How is it possible for all this to be happening and life can still be going on as normal elsewhere?”

Refugee source

The company’s first instinct, he says, “as it always is, was to go to the source directly”. For example, The Blue Boy used the testimony of men and women incarcerated in Catholic institutions to explore the legacy of abuse in Ireland; Silver Stars used interviews with older gay men to give life to their stories on stage.

“So we contacted various migrants rights organisations and were put in touch with a group of refugees in Spandau,” a suburb of Berlin. “They were particularly interesting because they had a theatre group, but we quickly realised that we were just one in a long line of white privileged artists who had come to visit them, thinking we could tell their stories.

“They were already making work about their own experiences, and they weren’t interested in talking about why they had left their country or how they had got there. They wanted to talk about what was happening to them now: the fact that they couldn’t work, the direct provision system, how their rights were curtailed.

“It was a huge eye-opener for us,” Keegan says, “and when we got back to Dublin we quickly decided to turn the gaze back upon ourselves: we who are safe, who are citizens, who own property, who have the promise of wealth. That’s what we know about. That’s what we could contribute to the debate.”

The play is set on a private beach in an unnamed European country. Here an extended family has come together to celebrate the wedding of the youngest member of the dynasty. However, dead bodies keep washing up on the shore, reminding the family of the constant threat to their way of life.

What do you do when your personal dominion is threatened? Do you attack, like the military men in the play? Do you exploit, like documentary-maker Breffni? Or do you ignore them, like patriarch and amateur archaeologist Dan, who literally buries his head in the sand?

The characters, by the way, share the same names as the actors. Keegan seems genuinely bemused by his own reasoning when I ask him about this breach of the theatrical fourth wall in an otherwise traditionally conceived drama: “I suppose fake names just felt like one fiction too far.”

Separate productions

Meanwhile, in a dark rehearsal room across town, Feidlim Cannon, Brokentalkers other half, is supervising an entirely different beast of a show. This is the first time since the company was founded in 2001 that the duo “are not working in the same room”, Cannon says. Neither appear daunted by the physical compromise: they debrief daily after rehearsal is finished, and sit in every few days to see how the other’s work is progressing.

However, “the real rigour of the work,” Cannon says, “takes place before rehearsals. We have a map, and though we can obviously deviate from it, we usually know where we are going.”

The Circus Animals’ Desertion will premiere two weeks after This Beach as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. The show is billed as a “poetic response” to WB Yeats’s poem rather than a staging of it, and in our conversation the pair cite dozens of the great man’s poems, plays, and essays, obscure and popular.

The choice of source material is an unusual one for Brokentalkers, whose work is resolutely contemporary in subject matter and approach.

“Yeats became interested in this idea of non-verbal poetry,” Keegan says, quoting the prologue to his final play, The Death of Cuchulain: “Where there are no words there is less to spoil”.

“ That is sort of an incredible thing for a poet to say,” he adds, “and we are taking that as sort of permission to embrace the abstract.” So far, this involves masks, live strings, and choreography by long-time collaborator Jessica Kennedy. Oh, and an army of cats.

The pair first read the poem as Leaving Cert students. “The poem is really Yeats looking back at his life and his work when he was a young man,” Cannon says. “So we are interested at that legacy: the automatic writing, the fascism. [2016] is an extraordinary year, a great opportunity to look at ideas of national identity, which is really based on the idea that some people are better than others.”

Fear and otherness

Themes not so far from This Beach then?

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Cannon says. “The two shows are formally very different, but the fact that we are doing the two in such close succession really points out to us how we are talking about the same thing, just in slightly different ways. They are both about fear and otherness, and how that plays out in the world.”

A festive atmosphere prevails back at the Lab. A beach bar is decked with palm grasses and a lei. Sound designer Jack Cawley is strumming a guitar while the cast run lines. Keegan calls for a quick rehearsal of the opening scene and the actors stand to attention. He issues the occasional direction, but for the most part it plays smoothly.

At the end, the actors begin debating the use of a microphone for the wedding speeches, but Keegan calls on Cannon’s authority (“It was his idea!”) to back him up. “You will have to see the production to find out if Cannon gets his way.

‘This Beach’ is at the Project Arts Centre until September 17th as part of the Tiger Dublin Fringe. ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ is at the Samuel Beckett Centre, October 4th-8th as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

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