The Cannon family has had two significant losses, which bracket the life of the oldest Cannon son, Feidlim (now in his thirties): his youngest brother, “Baby Sean,” died just a few hours after birth when Feidlim was six years old, and his father, Sean Cannon, died in 2001–in a manner whose details are revealed slowly over the course of the piece.
Have I No Mouth – presented as part of COIL 2014 – is an intensely, at times uncomfortably, personal trip through the Cannons’ process of grief and toward healing, or at least through the process of striving to learn how to heal, and how to talk with honesty and openness about these terrible experiences. Poised at an unusual nexus of documentary theater, autobiographical performance art, and narrative playwriting, the piece is performed by Feidlim Cannon (one of the founders of the Dublin-based company Brokentalkers) and two non-actors: his mother, Ann Cannon, a reiki practitioner and color therapist, and Dublin psychotherapist Erich Keller. (The third Cannon brother, Padraic, four years younger than Feidlim, is frequently spoken of but appears only as a cardboard cutout of his childhood self, alongside a similar childhood Feidlim, both taken from blown-up photographs that appear in projections in the piece.)
Drawing on therapeutic techniques as well as storytelling (sometimes literally, to the point of including the audience in a breathing exercise or narrating excerpts from a case summary and sometimes more metaphorically, letting these methods shape interactions between characters), Have I No Mouth explores the complexities and imperfections of memory, gaps in family communication, and ultimately the painful, continual holes in Feidlim and Ann’s lives left by the absence of these family members. Sometimes it feels unclear whether the piece is really performed for the audience, or whether it’s letting the audience peek inside raw emotions being processed by the performers; it’s disconcerting and deeply moving all at once.
Because the piece presents itself as simultaneously a performance piece and a faithful representation or re-creation of the Cannon family’s experiences, re-enacted by the real-life players, it inescapably raises questions about the nature of theater, about the “reality” of what’s being presented here. There are photos and videos throughout, ranging from what Feidlim calls a “not very good” video art piece he made as a memorial to his father (it prominently features a Guinness glass in various locations) to blow-ups of family snapshots to excerpts from a gardening-competition program on Irish television that Ann and Feidlim participated in: were they created for the piece, or are they genuine pieces of family history? Objects appear on the stage, objects assigned strong resonance in memory, yet these seem clearly to be stage-prop representations rather than cherished talismans.
Yet at the same time, it feels inappropriate, even somehow ethically wrong, to be interrogating this piece in that way, holding it up for that kind of structural analysis when it is so closely congruent with the traumatic experiences of real people. There’s a very curious balance struck here between voyeurism, self-exploitation (in a sort of reality-TV way where one makes a product out of one’s own life), and genuine communication and connection between people.
The piece felt more effective when more theatrical: When Feidlim uses the board game Operation to dramatize his father’s terrible experiences in the hospital, letting the game’s buzzer bleep out literal details. When Feidlim steps in to empty spaces in the enormous projections of family photos. When Ann dances with the cardboard cutouts of her children as they were thirty years ago. And, most particularly, when Keller begins to stand in for Sean Cannon, or a sort of mannequin/puppet version of Cannon: he cannot speak, nor drink the Guinness Feidlim keeps trying to force on him, and that simultaneous presence and absence has enormous power. It’s perhaps the least literal, the most oblique, segment in Have I No Mouth, and yet the most viscerally emotional. When that balance is struck, the piece has enormous power; when it’s not, it can feel a little like being trapped in an elevator with two people fighting: the matter at hand isn’t entirely directed at you, but you become intertwined with it anyway.