Lippy by Dead Centre
Volume 4

Not Not I: Undoing Representation with Dead Centre’s Lippy

We possess nothing in the world…except the power to say ‘I’. That is what we have to give to God—in other words, to destroy.

                                                                                -Simone Weil

Split between London and Dublin, Dead Centre is a collaboration between director Ben Kidd, writer/director/performer Bush Moukarzel, and sound designer/performer Adam Welsh. Their first production, a solo performance for Moukarzel titled Souvenir (2012) sought to compress Proust’s vast autobiographical opus into a fifty-minute performance. In (S)quark! (2013) Welsh sampled and looped his voice with that of a parakeet to encounter James Joyce’s verbal experimentation afresh. Lippy, the company’s third and most ambitious work to date, seems to pursue that other great Irish modernist, Samuel Beckett, largely by avoiding his presence until a final section echoes back “Not I.” The company is currently at work on a series of “First Plays” that will imagine misrepresentations of the first anomalous and even unstageable works of Chekhov (Platonov), Brecht (Baal), and Beckett (Eleutheria). In Lippy, this recurrent interest in the problems of interpreting modernist texts extends to the problems of interpretation in a broader sense. The performance premiered at the Lir Theatre as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival in late 2013 where it won Best Production in the Irish Times Theatre Awards. I saw the piece in its first extended run at the Traverse Theatre in Scotland as part of the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival (where it received a Fringe First, Herald Angel, and Total Theatre Award), and then again at the Abrons Arts Center in New York City later in the fall.

If Lippy is a performance about theatrical representation, it is particularly concerned with such representation in the Irish context. Modern Irish drama has traditionally relied upon speech and storytelling to determine a social or national identity. We might think of the monologue dramas of Brian Friel, Connor McPherson, and Mark O’Rowe, in which lone figures recount the past or several characters take turns retelling intertwined—at times conflicting—versions of the same event. Elsewhere, as in Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire (1980) or Sebastian Barry’s Steward of Christendom, characters struggle to finish narrating their past in order to arrive at a complete sense of self. Even the fabulations of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World and his many descendants over the past century establish their theatricalized authority through linguistic play.

As this very partial list should make clear, this is a history in which men often write language on seemingly realistic bodies (often those of silenced women) to determine them. Though a counter-tradition of physical and visual theatre can be traced from the rise of modern Irish drama via Yeats’s Noh plays, the voice has generally subjected the body to its dictates. Samuel Beckett’s work clearly worries over this conflict, with his many voices caught in purgatorial self-fashioning and his figures on the verge of objecthood. In his plays, novels, and short fictions, Beckett’s characters often seek an end to speech (and writing) that might coincide with an end to appearance and to life. Thus the title character in Malone Dies ceases to exist only as the writing itself gasps out last fragments of text.

Lippy sidesteps the issue by beginning at the end, or after it. The setup screen for a projector fills a proscenium frame with ugly technical dropdown menus. Three simple chairs onstage face out. In the pre-show half-light, there’s a fellow up there fiddling with the remote control, trying to toggle through the options and correct some technical glitch, while nervously checking his watch. In the stage left corner, a sound operator adjusts levels. Is this theatrical pretense or has something really gone wrong here? Microphone in hand, the first man finally signals off and the music fades out. He apologizes for the delay and says that he’s heard word that two of the actors will be out shortly for the post-show discussion. It seems we’ve missed the whole event.

The Q and A session that follows employs a good deal of absurd and self-deprecating humor. The moderator is Bush Moukarzel (credited in the program as the playwright of Lippy), here playing himself, and the faux eagerness he brings to the task offers a caustic portrayal of the typical post-show moderator (I had the bizarre experience of moderating a “real” post-show talk for the performance in NYC, where I thought myself suddenly subsumed in its game and set to begin the performance again). Its not just a clever joke; this opening section stages how interpretation always begins after the fact, where we clear up all the loose ends and find out how the scenes were stitched together. For the spectacular event that Lippy circles has already taken place as well, outside the theatre and long ago. I quote here from the program: “In 2000 in Leixlip, co. Kildare, an aunt and 3 sisters boarded themselves into their home and entered into a suicide pact that lasted 40 days. We weren’t there. We don’t know what they said. This is not their story.” Rather, the story that Lippy tells is one about the nature of storytelling itself, as an imposition on the ones represented.

The performance tells its story in three distinct parts, each employing a different mode of representation. The first section (the Q and A session) promises a non-theatrical and analytic remove, its light tone pocked with occasional unnerving disruptions. Only one of the actors shows—Daniel Reardon—and the ensuing conversation explores the origin of the production we have missed, which turns out to be another performance that the company abandoned. Reardon recounts how the director, Ben, had contacted him while researching for another show about the event in Leixlip. Having learned to lip-read because his daughter was born deaf, Reardon occasionally acts as an interpreter for police investigations. He had been called in to work on the case of the Mulrooney’s—four women who had starved themselves to death in their home in Leixlip, a suburb of Dublin. They had shredded their personal documents and collected them in large garbage bags, essentially eradicating any trace of historical record, and leaving almost no explanation for their action. CCTV security footage from a local store had recorded two of the sisters in silenced speech during a rare outing and investigators hoped to learn some cause from the words exchanged. Reardon provided a lip reading that would define their characters; the actor—the one who interprets the speech of others—doubles as a legal interpreter.

The organizers have arranged for us to see some of the source material for the production, alongside Reardon’s commentary: a scene from Scorsese’s Casino, in which the mobsters cover their mouths to prevent the police interpreting their speech; a clip of the football player John Terry mouthing racist abuse which was used as evidence against him in court; and one from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where the computer Hal reads the lips of the astronauts as they attempt to converse out of the system’s earshot. Together with a selection from Youtube’s “Bad Lip Reading” series, in which absurd passages of speech are grafted onto footage of Mitt Romney on the campaign trail, these instances of screened lip reading all circle around issues of authority and discipline, and—apart from a miscue when the abortive sight of a woman’s mouth in silent speech flickers on the screen—all feature men. Indeed, we’ve only seen men onstage so far—the sound designer, the moderator, and the actor/interpreter—all concerned with the task of mediation. The inspiring event concerned four silent women whose actual past lies outside the reach of police and public analysis; here, the makers of Lippy place themselves in this intruding company. As Reardon puts it they were interested in how “the voice as the site of meaning, becomes the site of power, so if you distort or replace what people say you are usurping their whole personality.”

Lippy by Dead Centre. Photo credit: Ian Douglas

Lippy by Dead Centre. Photo credit: Ian Douglas

Welsh interrupts the casual backstage realism of this first section, singing a haunting line from a Navajo prayer that begins to loop on itself: “When you were born you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” As the performers leave the stage, the screen lifts to reveal a chamber extending deeper into the theatre. Black plastic bags filled with shredded paper litter a sparsely furnished white room. We are back at the scene of crime. Four figures in hazmat suits investigate, cleaning up the refuse, righting an upturned table. They are a forensics team, physically resetting the scene to retrace its unfolding. When they gather around the table, Willie Nelson’s “Home is where you’re happy” starts to play, lulling them into a swaying chorus, as if the space itself were enchanting them. Stripping off their suits, they reveal themselves to be the four Mulrooneys. The crime scene summons the investigators to re-perform the traumatic event.

This second section of the piece belongs to a much more chilling and uncertain world, as if filtered through David Lynch’s cinematography. When the lip reader bursts from out of one of the plastic bags, with an apology for interrupting, the four women are already back in a distorted restaging of their eventual wasting away. Their minimal everyday gestures carry the dream-like weight of an inevitable choreography. The slow and blurred replay of time’s passage distorts the space itself: at one point turning the table and propping it against the wall so that we seem to be looking down on the scene, at another the fluorescent lights of the ceiling descend to grace the tips of one of the sister’s outstretched hands. These impossible ways of looking stage out-of-body experiences are more befitting the mystical practices of the film camera than the stage.

Of course, the particular form of disembodiment evoked here—self-starvation—inescapably carries an added resonance in the Irish context, evoking the Great Famine of 1845-1852 and the hunger strikes of Long Kesh in 1981. As Conor Cruise O’Brien and others have noted, Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers in the Republic’s cause have since been characterized in the terms of Christian martyrdom. Here, too, as the little evidence recovered from the scene indicates, the suicide pact sought a Christian transcendence from the material world. This materiality applies not only to the body, but the economy of a changed Ireland. We learn that the women had moved to the house after being evicted from their flat in Dublin, and that they were discovered by their landlord when he visited to deliver a new eviction notice. More recently, as the lip reader reminds us, Leixlip has become the center of Ireland’s “Silicon Valley” with the government investing three-billion euro into developing the communications industry there. Is it too much to suggest that such investments in a new, dematerialized economy neglect the social body of an Ireland still emerging from the post-Celtic tiger bust?


Lippy by Dead Centre

Occasional scraps of text that were recovered at the actual site in 2000 are voiced, but throughout the women are constantly divided from their speech and their representation. Songs, sounds, and speech are disjointed. This is especially the case with the speech that seems to sit above the women, often pre-recorded and lip-synched. Modulation sinks one sister’s voice into a demonic masculine bass proclaiming “This isn’t what happened;” another’s attempt to confess her doubts about the suicidal pact keeps getting interrupted, first by a coughing fit from another and then by a whining pitch of digital interference. Later, the four women form a backup choir behind the lip reader and all together lip-synch to the crooning of Don McLean’s “Crying in the Chapel.” Playing the embodied vessels for a men’s quartet, the women do not possess their own voices.

Throughout, the interpreter watches from the sides, occasionally speaking for the women or trying to intercede. At one point he offers a sandwich and some tea to the youngest sister (a strikingly statuesque Liv O’Donoghue), the one who seems closest to reneging on her vow. She lifts the porcelain cup to her mouth and bites into it, blood streaming down her throat. The act of consumption like the act of speech is violence here. Later, the interpreter addresses one of the women as if she were his daughter, overlaying his own biography and home atop the site. Analysis cannot help but be infected by the perspective of the analysand.

While events happen here (a trip to the store and one by one the deaths of the women), the timelessly encroaching end feels at one with Beckett’s private purgatories of non-arrival. But the writer’s influence is felt most overtly in the final section, where the screen from the start of the performance returns to obscure the ruined house behind, and the last remaining sister pours forth a relentless monologue. Her mouth is projected on the screen in extreme close-up, directly quoting Beckett’s Not I or, rather, its filmic variants as performed by Billie Whitelaw or Julianne Moore. One also immediately recognizes the scene as the miscued silent video clip from the first section, so it is a case of déjà vu doubled over. But, in contradistinction to the voice in Beckett’s masterpiece, this text (spoken by playwright-performer Gina Moxley and written by playwright Mark O’Halloran at the company’s invitation) follows a much more conventional script, recollecting an abusive father at the root of the collective abandonment. It is an overlong text that unfortunately dampens and exhausts the performance’s culmination (note: I am told it has been shortened by three minutes in its most recent iteration at the Young Vic). And yet, this clichéd revelation of traumatic origin never actually arrives at the satisfactory conclusion that might explain the events onstage. It recalls psychological realism’s method of revelation as a technology for explaining, controlling, and curing a character—usually a woman. If the voice in Not I cannot identify with the subject she describes, then so too this mouth speaks for someone else. Intentionally or not, whatever dissatisfaction we feel in regard to the monologue goes to show its fictional character as a disappointing imposition on a body that we cannot access, an impression that is even more apparent in having the exceptionally articulate Gina Moxley—the author of the plays Danti-Dan and Dog House—speak the monologue. That we have already seen this scene in the post-show suggests that it belongs in the repertoire of the interpreters, not in the world of lived experience.

Lippy by Dead Centre

Lippy by Dead Centre

The voice ceases on an “Amen” and disappears as the scrim turns transparent, and we see the bare empty theatre space behind lit in work lights. The chamber is gone, with its bodies and bags, and the spectacle is over. All that remains is the theatre itself. In this way, Lippy ties together its interrogation of the screened and staged worlds. If the first and last sections occupy a cinematic space, relying on projections that fill the proscenium, the middle section’s associative field of embodied meaning occupies a deep stage, literally and figuratively. Yet, that central section seems the most cinematic in its way, playing with different ways of looking on a scene and rewinding time. The theatre does not emerge as some ideal site for direct access to experience but as the material ground behind every screen. Indeed, the structural norms of the theatre are staged not only in the faux post-show discussion, but also in a false intermission at the center of the performance. Here the audience listens to a recording of themselves that surreptitiously was made in the lobby before the show—perhaps, in the manner of the Mulrooneys, we recognize our own voices taken from us and redeployed. On one hand, then, these metatheatrical intrusions put the theatre itself on stage as another compromised system of interpretation.

On the other hand, the empty theatre is perhaps the best way to represent these women who themselves disowned representation. I, too, began this essay at the end, by quoting Simone Weil, a philosopher who sought through self-starvation to reconcile a subjectivity that she saw as interference between God and creation. In Grace and Gravity, Weil writes of craving: “To see a landscape as it is when I am not there. When I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven and earth by my breathing and the beating of my heart” (42). In a three-part essay that discusses Weil’s project alongside other mystics of “decreation,” the poet Anne Carson appends a longer fourth part outside the structure of the essay that she devotes to the uses of contradiction. What happens after the last part? If we are to trace a movement across the three parts of Lippy, it might be one of progressive approach towards the final section’s intense and exhausting close-up of a mouth in confession. But can we get any more proximate to this inarticulate event? Perhaps. We can pass behind the screen to arrive at the performance’s final image, when we cross the threshold of representation to show the ground alone, the non-place where the Mulrooneys left representation. If this is so, then it is only in the empty theatre that the women of Leixlip can appear—precisely by not appearing, by not saying “not I.”

Daniel Sack is an assistant professor in the English Department and Honors College at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He is the author of After Live: Possibility, Potentiality, and the Future of Performance (University of Michigan Press, 2015). His writing on contemporary interdisciplinary performance has been published in PAJ: a Journal of Performance and Art, Studies in Theatre and Performance, TDR: the Drama Review, Theater, Theatre Forum, Theatre Journal, and American Theatre magazine, as well as a number of edited collections in several languages. From 2014-2016, he is the performance review editor for Theatre Journal.

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European Stages, vol. 4, no. 1 (Spring 2015)

Editorial Board:

Marvin Carlson, Senior Editor, Founder

Krystyna Illakowicz, Co-Editor

Dominika Laster, Co-Editor

Editorial Staff:

Elizabeth Hickman, Managing Editor

Bhargav Rani, Editorial Assistant

Advisory Board:

Joshua Abrams

Christopher Balme

Maria Delgado

Allen Kuharsky

Jennifer Parker-Starbuck

Magda Romańska

Laurence Senelick

Daniele Vianello

Phyllis Zatlin

Table of Contents:

  1. Report from Berlin by Yvonne Shafer
  2. Performing Protest/Protesting Performance: Golgota Picnic in Warsaw by Chris Rzonca
  3. A Mad World My Masters at the Barbican by Marvin Carlson
  4. Grief, Family, Politics, but no Passion: Ivo van Hove’s Antigone by Erik Abbott
  5. Not Not I: Undoing Representation with Dead Centre’s Lippy by Daniel Sack
  6. In the Name of Our Peasants: History and Identity in Ukrainian and Polish Contemporary Theatre by Oksana Dudko
  7. Performances at a Symposium: “Theatre as a Laboratory for Community Interaction” at Odin Teatret, Holstebro, Denmark, May, 2014 by Seth Baumrin
  8. Songs of Lear by the Polish Song of the Goat Theatre by Lauren Dubowski
  9. Silence, Shakespeare and the Art of Taking Sides, Report from Barcelona by Maria M. Delgado
  10. Little Theatres and Small Casts: Madrid Stage in October 2014 by Phyllis Zatlin
  11. Gobrowicz’s and Ronconi’s Pornography without Scandal by Daniele Vianello
  12. Majster a Margaréta in Teatro Tatro, Slovakia by Miroslav Ballay
  13. Remnants of the Welfare State: A Community of Humans and Other Animals on the Main Stage of the Finnish National Theatre by Outi Lahtinen
  14. Mnouchkine’s Macbeth at the Cartoucherie by Marvin Carlson
  15. Awantura Warszawska and History in the Making: Michał Zadara’s Docudrama, Warsaw Uprising Museum, August, 2011 by Krystyna Illakowicz and Chris Rzonca



Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director

Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications

Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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