Features Q&A and Interviews Published 26 February 2015

Acts of Interpretation

Ahead of Lippy's run at the Young Vic, writer and director Bush Moukarzel discusses the production and the difficulty of telling untold stories.
Lee Anderson

“We have no authoritative claim to this story”, declares Bush Moukarzel, writer and director of Dublin-based theatre collective, Dead Centre. We’re discussing Lippy, their deeply mystifying and darkly mysterious account of a true-to-life suicide pact between an aunt and her three sisters in County Kildare. Lippy will arrive at London’s Young Vic later this week, hot on the heels of a successful international tour, but for now our conversation veers away from the performance itself and to the unsettling reality surrounding the tragic events that inspired it. “I initially decided not to work with this story”, Moukarzel tells me, “because it calls into question the ethical responsibility of how one brings something like this to light. The whole point of their pact was to withdraw from the world and not have it spoken about.”

Speech is highly contested terrain in Dead Centre’s latest production. In Lippy, the impulse to speak, even the notion of speech as a vessel for communication, becomes an intense source of political and emotional conflict. An enormous pair of blood-red lips looms before us – evocative of Beckett’s iconic Mouth in Not I – while characters’ attempts to utter words are disrupted by bursts of atonal noise. For Moukarzel, this problematizing of speech – who is permitted to speak, who has the right to speak and the act of speaking on behalf of the speechless – marks “an attempt to capture the noise of what it’s like to be alive”; the chaff and jar of many voices vying for space and agency.

It also confronts an ethical conundrum: how to tell a story shrouded in so much secrecy without resorting to exploitative voyeurism? Are some stories better left untold? For Moukarzel, instead of attempting to resolve these problems, they became the genesis point for the project. “We realized we didn’t need to overcome or side-step these problems”, he explains. “When it came to the ethical concerns involved in putting words into people’s mouths and telling a story that no one was there to report – we decided they could just be central to our approach. The story demanded that of us.”

The struggle for self-articulation and the co-opting of others’ voices, or a group of voices, for the sake of telling a story, are ethical concerns that underpin Lippy’s approach to this thorny subject matter. When it debuted last year at the Edinburgh Festival, Lippy flummoxed critics and frazzled audiences. Directed by Ben Kidd, who co-created the show with Moukarzel and Mark O’Halloran, the play’s uncompromising dramatic structure, dreamlike imagery and menacingly discordant sound design made for a jagged, dissonant and fascinatingly discombobulating experience. While some of its imagery suggests a debt to Beckett and its tone strikes a distinctly Lynchian note, the driving force was a self-questioning desire to wrestle with the essential mystery underpinning this story.

“The strategies for telling stories stall, get tired and become staid, so you always need to find new strategies”, explains Moukarzel. “We’re scrutinizing the mechanisms by which we understand the world. It’s an analysis. We’re trying to understand what structures are at our disposal; what are the mechanisms; what are the decisions. It’s about throwing light on these techniques and strategies”.

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Moukarzel and his team’s own technique was to unite two very contrasting ideas and shatter ingrained illusions around who holds the authorial reigns of such a story. The play opens with a post-show talk, in which Moukarzel (as compére) introduces us to a lip-reader. The lip-reader tells us of his ability to deduce speech by analyzing CCTV footage as part of a police investigation. This meta-theatrical, Pirandellian set-up is then shattered with a sudden, ear-splitting wall of noise. We’re suddenly plunged into a highly ritualized, alien world; the murky, detritus strewn home of the Mulrooney family. As Moukarzel explains, the synthesis of these two modes fulfills an important purpose: “We started with the post-show talk. I had it in mind as a theatre-event that would start the audience on the back-foot. This structure came first and then separate to that I had heard about the [Mulrooney family] story. It’d been with me for two years, but it was only when the beginning structure occurred to me that I thought these two things could speak to each other.”

Lip-reading becomes a leitmotif for how the act of interpretation necessarily bends and reshapes the truth of an event. In seeking to question the artists’ distortional role in this process, Lippy places its own artifice, its own partial reading of events and their inability to capture a total sense of reality, at the heart of its construction. Instead of reconstructing real-life events, Moukarzel and his team embraced a process of deconstruction: breaking down story, dismantling narrative, allowing feelings of unease to become creative impulses and incomprehension to open up fresh creative possibilities. For Moukarzel and his team, this level of meta-theatrical self-awareness serves a primarily critical role. “The term ‘meta’ means beyond, not about,” he explains. “The idea of meta-theatre meaning ‘about theatre’ is just a vernacular mistake. Some people are sometimes suspicious of that level of self-awareness, but there is self-reflexivity at the heart of everyday experience.”

As our conversation draws to a close, I suggest to Moukarzel that some of the attempts to describe Lippy have proven as tricky as the production itself. He politely disagrees; despite its formal daring and challenging subject matter, Moukarzel says, there is a deceptive clarity at the heart of what they’re setting out to achieve. “It’s a form of aesthetic confusion that isn’t there to be smug, but to be honest.”

Lippy is at the Young Vic from 19th February – 14th March 2015.

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Lee Anderson

Lee is a writer and critic living in London. Despite subsisting solely on a diet of Marmite sandwhiches, black coffee and Marlboro Light, Lee survived the crush of academia and graduated with a first-class degree in English & Film and Theatre from the University of Reading in 2011 (a decision he has struggled to explain to his parents ever since). As well as slating work as a critic, Lee is also making work as a playwright, thus both having his cake and eating it too. He is also an Associate Artist of SQUINT theatre company.

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