After seeing Kieran Hurley’s new play Mouthpiece at the Traverse earlier this week, I spent most of my half-hour walk home thinking about the rather ingenious piece of sleight-of-hand I’d just seen.
Even though I know that biographical interpretations of works of art can be hugely problematic, if not downright irrelevant, there’s clearly part of my brain that cannot resist searching for authorial authenticity when it comes to dealing with tricky questions of legitimacy or appropriation.
Let me explain.
The premise of Mouthpiece is relatively straightforward. A young man, Declan, stops a middle-aged woman, Libby, from flinging herself off Edinburgh’s Salisbury Crags. Separated by age, by class and by privilege, the pair eventually connect through their shared interest in art—drawing for him; playwriting for her—and a desperate need for an emotional lifeline. Libby’s all washed up and you’d think, given his youth, that Declan’s only just getting started, but Hurley has other plans for his protagonists.
Things take an interesting turn when Libby’s transformative friendship with Declan stimulates her creativity and prompts the writing of a new play, a work partly inspired by Declan’s life in the “other” Edinburgh, one whose existence is ignored by city-centre residents and tourists alike. Through Libby’s actions, Hurley’s play grapples with ethical questions linked to representation, exploitation and visibility in art. Whose stories need to be told, who decides which stories need to be told, but also who has the right to tell those stories.
And this is why I couldn’t stop thinking about the related issues of authenticity and appropriation on my walk home from the theatre. Should I go home and look up Hurley’s background before writing my review? If I discover, for example, that he grew up on a council estate with an explosively violent stepfather, does that change my reading of Mouthpiece? Or if I learn that the play was inspired by Hurley’s chance meeting on Salisbury Crags with a kid like Declan, does that legitimate Declan’s voice? Does it matter? And isn’t it interesting that my default assumption is to consider Declan’s voice, rather than Libby’s, the one being appropriated and exploited?
There’s a line Declan says toward the end of Mouthpiece which appears to neatly summarise these ethical complications: ‘Cause it’s all very well wanting to be a voice for the voiceless, eh. Until you find oot the voiceless have a fucking voice and mibbe they might want tay use it.’ It’s no accident that this line has also been used in the marketing of the play on posters and on the Traverse’s website.
But this is why earlier on I referred to sleight-of-hand. The almost absurdly meta-theatrical framework of a writer writing a play about a writer writing a play perhaps distracts from the fact that Hurley has also written a play which engages in the very act it appears to criticise. In the act of creating a work about the ethical tensions between a desire to represent untold stories and the agency of those to whom the stories belong, isn’t Mouthpiece itself a re-presentation of those tensions as much as a piece that asks questions about them?
Drawing attention to ideas of legitimacy, authenticity and cultural appropriation through art often means engaging in a degree of cultural appropriation or exploitation in the process. But, then again, do only certain people have a right to ask certain questions? To be honest, I’m not sure.
Despite my inability to answer these questions, or perhaps because of it, Mouthpiece feels as much like a knotty ethical puzzle as it does an engrossing evening at the theatre. Neve McIntosh and Lorn Macdonald as Libby and Declan are exceptional. Both performances are perfectly pitched, balanced on a knife edge between selfish emotional desperation and a pitiable frustration at life’s misfortunes. Kai Fischer’s simple set, a large rectangular frame surrounding raked steps, is a thoughtful backdrop for Hurley’s play within a play to unfold.
It’s not often I come out of the theatre with my mind spinning in circles around a knotty ethical dilemma. Although Mouthpiece is as problematic as it is provocative, it’s all the better for being both.
Mouthpiece is on at the Traverse, Edinburgh, until 22 December. More info here.