If you’re expecting a straightforward narrative piece you might be frustrated and infuriated by Bush Moukarzel’s Lippy, but if you want to be challenged, if you appreciate Brecht’s claim ‘If one understands a story, it has been told badly’ you are in for a treat. This is a bold and extraordinary piece of theatre, pushing against the boundaries of convention.
Set in the year 2000, in Leixlip, County Kildare, an elderly aunt and her three nieces board themselves up in their home and starve themselves to death in a suicide pact that lasts forty days. The play is loosely based on letters written by one of the nieces, and a short section of CCTV footage, but Moukarzel is clear to point out that we don’t know what these women said, and that his play is not their story. Instead, it’s an exploration of the many meanings of meaninglessness, the idea of anonymity and of not being understood in a world where almost our every move and transaction is documented. It’s also an interesting mediation on the role of theatre, and the writer, and the way that both tend to explore events by putting words into people’s mouths. Lippy is exciting precisely because it avoids that common, easy temptation.
An awkward post-show discussion of a play we never see sets the tone from the beginning. There’s a palpable sense of nervousness and tension as the audience wonders whether they’re in the right theatre. The subject of the conversation is lip-reading, for this turns out to be one of actor Dan Reardon’s talents (he even assisted the police investigation into the Leixlip case). Yet, as we are treated to a demonstration of his skill, it quickly becomes clear that it is often painfully inaccurate. The voice, the actor says, is the ‘site of power’, and distorting what people say is a usurpation of that power; an interesting judgement on theatre.
Then the black backdrop gives way – accompanied by an ear-splitting soundscape – to reveal the home of the four Irish women. Though the opening section of the play is far from straightforward, this second half is even further removed from what we are accustomed to: the little dialogue that exists is distorted or provided via voiceover, or is overwhelmed (intentionally, we assume) by Adam Welsh’s sound design; we cannot be sure whether the actors’ considered movements represent a linear progression of events; Reardon himself is often present within the house, and his inability to decipher what happened mirrors our own, a constant reminder of our frustration and how much we rely on words to make sense of the world, even if they might not be true.
In the absence of dialogue, we have to rely on our other senses and the tableau of images before us to draw our own conclusions about what happened in that house. The women move slowly, deprived of nourishment, their every move exaggerated, painful, fragile, yet heavy with the expectation of what is to come. The weight of Catholicism is palpable, through snippets of sound and snatches of words that refer to the Devil, to death, peace and the inferiority of women. And like believers waiting for a revelation, we keep expecting to be provided with answers, for that is what we have become accustomed to. But Lippy bravely refrains from giving us the satisfaction. Death, Mouzarkel claims, is an event ‘without explanation’, and his play makes that overwhelmingly clear.
The play’s coda takes the form of a video monologue delivered by an elderly woman, but we only see her lips. It’s an obvious nod to Beckett and, while an unexpected ending that certainly won’t satisfy everyone, it is in keeping with the particularly dense and ambiguous nature of the piece, one that asks a great deal of its audience.
Visually and aurally, Lippy is striking, but, in the absence of dialogue, it needs to be. In relying on our other senses, we are given a different theatrical experience, one which exposes us to new ways in which the theatre can illuminate something, even as it itself argues it cannot – or ought not – be illuminated.