An Irish family opens the wounds of grief in this unique theatrical experience
On paper, it doesn’t sound very promising. A mother, her son and their psychotherapist explore the impact of two deaths in the family, creating theatre out of the grief, anger and helplessness particular to survivors of senseless tragedy. In practice, this is such a tender, open-hearted paean to familial love that audience members will want to hug the performers in the foyer afterwards.
Brokentalkers is a Dublin-based theatre company that clearly likes to take risks, and often uses non-actors alongside professional ones. Feidlim Cannon is the professional actor in this show, as well as the co-director, and his mother Ann and therapist Erich Keller are the non-actors. Although in a work such as this, raw and direct, the distinctions barely matter.
Opening with what feels like an actual therapy session, the audience encouraged to use balloons as anger substitutes, the humour and irreverence of the mother/son relationship soon asserts itself. Keller asks them to choose objects which remind them of Dad. Feidlim mocks Ann’s ‘morbid’ symbols of remembrance, and she in turn accuses him of being overly ‘sentimental’ with his choices. It’s a dynamic that constantly saves the show from maudlin indulgence.
The death of Feidlim’s baby brother Sean (named after his father) is handled with disarming honesty, and the contrasting versions of events powerfully demonstrates the tricks that memory can play on the bereaved. But this loss is just a precursor to the main event, the tragic misdiagnosis and death of Sean senior at 49.
The sheer mundane ordinariness of this family is the key to the play’s extraordinary effect. The love of Guiness, the rather sweet arguments over mortality’s appropriateness as a subject for children, Sean senior’s hilarious tendency to take family photographs off centre, all build a picture that is universal precisely because it is so specific. We may not experience tragedy in quite the same way as the Cannon’s but we will all know loss and grief.
The mood is fairly elegiac at times, despite the comic touches, but things get weirder and more disturbing when Keller wraps his face up in bandages and becomes the father substitute. Like the balloon from earlier, he transforms into the vessel that Feidlim fills with his anger and resentment.
The theatricality of the play is quite spare, with minimal but significant props, and a screen that projects photos and videos that contrast or heighten the onstage scenes. Ann is a gentle and softly spoken presence, and Keller is lovely as the therapist/father, but the lynchpin of the piece is clearly Feidlim, whose frank and generous approach to his task doesn’t shirk from emotional depths.
Have I No Mouth is unlike anything else currently playing on Melbourne stages. It’s part testimonial, part docudrama, part therapy session. But it’s also an uplifting and beautiful play, an intimate portal into love and loss.