What: Have I No Mouth
Where: The Coopers Malthouse – part of the 2014 Melbourne Festival
When: October 10 – 13
Written & Directed by: Feidlim Cannon & Gary Keegan
Performed by: Ann Cannon, Feidlim Cannon, and Erich Keller
Costumes by: Emma Downey
Lighting by: Sarah Jane Shiels
Sound by: Jack Cawley
Video by: Kilian Waters
Have I No Mouth is being presented as part of the Melbourne Festival at the Coopers Malthouse until October 13. This play is the creation of the Irish company BrokenTalkers which formed in 2001 and who have gone on to impress the world with their innovative approach to theatre making.
BrokenTalkers are all about making accessible theatre. For them that means performing works in diverse places but more importantly, creating work with a diverse group of collaborators. They source their skills and stories from the real world around them and although they do work with other professional artists, their main aim is to bring authenticity to the work which means they also use people who are not connected to performance making or even the arts when it is appropriate.
Have I No Mouth is the perfect example of this. The story is that of Feidlim Cannon and his Mum, Ann, as they struggle to come to terms with the death firstly of Feidlim’s baby brother and then his father.
Rather than write a play and have actors perform, the protagonists are the real people involved. Thus, the cast consists of Feidlim, his Mum Ann, and their real therapist, Keller.
Do not misunderstand. This is an incredibly well structured and well performed work. The tone of the piece is that of being a part of the therapy process. As such it does not require heightened emotions or any formal acting form. The point is the story being told and the relationships being examined. The inherent naturalism and reserve that comes from not just non-performers, but the real people involved, sets exactly the right tone for the work.
The staging itself is a fairly standard modern configuration with clusters of furniture around the stage which will evidently become acting spaces for various scenes. There are random props on each of the three tables, a microphone on a stand, two cardboard cut outs of children, and a wall which becomes the projection screen. However, right from the start of the show, we realise that this is not going to be quite the traditional theatre event we may have come to expect.
A film begins with a glass of Guinness in every shot. We don’t know how to interpret this although it seems humorous and then Feidlim walks out and explains that this is a film he made to commemorate his father’s death. Then we get all serious but he has built in a humorous exchange with the film and this allows the audience to understand that we are allowed to laugh even in serious moments. This is perhaps the moment we really understand that these are Dubliners before us.
Feidlim then introduces us to his mother and his therapist. Before the story kicks in the therapist takes us through some relaxation techniques, and later he teaches us about anger balloons. The sound of a room full of balloons ‘farting’ as the air is released may very well be the funniest bit of audience interaction I have ever been a part of!
We are then placed inside the therapy sessions with Feidlim and Ann. The reason this works so well is that they have managed to retain the immediacy and spontaneity of the mother and son interactions so you do not feel like you are watching a rehearsed piece of theatre. This is voyeurism at its best and without the guilt. We are given permission to listen in and are spoken to directly at various points. We are the witnesses to the pain and, potentially, healing.
As the show progresses we come to understand many things about grief, but one of the most poignant lessons is the sense of betrayal and distrust which is engendered in children by the death of a family member. The anger lies on so many levels: anger that the person has gone away, anger that others let it happen, anger about how and when you are told. The saddest part is that it doesn’t really go away. You just have to learn to let it out slowly like a farting balloon, rather than letting it ‘pop’ destructively.
The most illuminating and climactic moments are in the ‘Frankenstein’ scenes. Enacting transference, the therapist becomes the missing father, and Feidlim orders him about and fights with him, and pours Guinness on him, and dances with him, and asks to be hugged. It is here that we understand the true depth of loss and pain.
Cannon and Keegan have created a real masterpiece with Have I No Mouth. The balance of fact and pathos is just perfect and it avoids that hairy trap of indulging in overemotionalism. The production elements are also perfectly balanced.