Finding the means to put language itself centre stage

But long before play’s central theme is resolved, it’s all talked out


Lyric Theatre, Belfast


The language of the future has been blunted, hammered home and stripped of all nuance in Dave Duggan’s new play for bilingual company Aisling Ghéar. This impoverished argot, inspired by Orwellian Newspeak, is called Emprish, and we hear it spoken by two linguistic storm troopers (Cillian O’Gairbhi and Mary Conroy) who come from the “Centre” to the distant outpost of Belfast, to dissolve the last archive of Irish.


Their assessment of Gaeilge is curt: “Threat: No. Value: No.” But orders are orders. They must bring all remaining data – and its “neutered drone” custodian, Makaronik (Liz Fitzgibbon) – back to the Centre. Makaronik, of course, has other ideas.

If the officials anticipated an easy mission, their names might have suggested more adventure – Diarmuid and Gráinne – and, as they recall a disastrous recent mission of their colleagues Tristan and Iseult, it seems the Centre likes to tempt fate, as well as myth.

Makaronik herself seems to have been created out of word play; Duggan’s nod to macaronic language, the playful intermingling of separate tongues. Here, her songs represent something more trenchant; the mixed inheritance of a hybridised culture. The know-it-all Diarmuid considers it the result of a culture in crisis, but its display here is of a more energising accommodation.

These are all engagingly cerebral conceits, but character and predicament are less keenly developed. In director Brid O Gallchoir’s production, Diarmuid and Gráinne become a little close to the overstretched Emprish language themselves – crude and repetitive instruments that convey little beyond function.

The advance for Aisling Ghéar, which usually delivers plays in simultaneous translation, is to interweave English and Irish in performance and thread translations or summaries upon the tablet screens of David Craig’s shoestring futuristic set. The instructive effect is to make spectators rely on the performance for detail and the surtitles for back-up, as though slyly resuscitating then drilling a command of basic grammar.

That too is where Duggan’s play is leading, as Liz Fitzgibbon’s subversive Makaronik reawakens desire and respect among the Empire’s flunkies for fluid expression and a language of choices. “Níl ann ach teanga,” she says, a neat summary of her concerns, but with this confrontation spread thin over two acts, the play is concerned with almost nothing but language. Long before it is resolved, it’s all talked out.

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture