THE play Lippy was a cult hit when it first appeared, briefly, at the Dublin Fringe Festival, in 2013. It won best production at the Irish theatre awards that year (disclosure: this writer was one of the judges).
It has since been to New York and the Edinburgh Fringe, with a run in London to come.
Before that, via a run on the Abbey Theatre’s Peacock stage, Lippy has a chance to cease being the best new play no-one has seen, and to get the audience it deserves.
Lippy is full of striking elements. At its core is the true and chilling story of how, in 2000, three sisters and their aunt starved themselves to death in a house in Leixlip.
Around that, it meditates on lip reading as a metaphor for the dramatist’s trade: putting words into others’ mouths.
It begins with a post-show discussion of a play the audience hasn’t seen, and uses framing devices, sound-effects and choreography to generate an emotional, visceral context around the deaths, the truth of which can never really be known.
Lippy has been widely lauded as meta-theatrical and daringly experimental. Yet, for its creator, Bush Moukarzel, Lippy is not a comment on theatre, but on his own all-encompassing, maximalist approach to his art.
“I don’t know how other people’s minds work,” he says, “but I can’t think of anything in isolation. With all that over-stimulation, with there being a post-show talk, films going on, this reference to Beckett’s Not I, it’s like a hyper-text, everything is connected and resonant.
The ridiculous and the sublime are always courting each other.
“So it seems an honest way of rendering something, in that way. I’m not trying to be deep or clever. That’s the simplest way I can put it.”
Moukarzel says all artists are realists. Then he pauses, to think who said that. This prompts an aside on the nature of memory, ideas and plagiarism.
It’s fun talking to him; his intellectual hinterland is an interesting place — Beckett, Charlie Kaufman and David Lynch rub shoulders. Moukarzel was an acolyte of cultural critic Slavoj Zizek before it was cool.
An interest in French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan brought Moukarzel from the UK to Dublin, where he studied psychoanalysis at Trinity College.
Then, he began working with PanPan Theatre Company, before forming his own company, Dead Centre.
“The different strategies of artists are just ways of capturing reality. Realism, per se, is deeply artificial. But with this post-dramatic, meta-theatrical whatever it is, the goal is still realism.
Theatre as a subject is not that interesting to most people. You can’t really be commenting on theatre all the time.
The thing about these tropes is you want them to tap into the feeling, to ring true at a basic emotional level, and not just be some intellectual game or joke.”
Moukarzel describes himself as “not a line-by-line playwright”. He starts with images, he says. In this case, the idea of lip-reading, and the idea that it might be “joyous” to start a show with a post-show discussion.
Around that, he says, the plan was to insert a central story, but the company had qualms about including such sensitive material.
“Initially, we said ‘no’, it would be irresponsible to do the Leixlip story. We have no right to do that story.
We felt a bit odd, too, as Englishmen in Ireland and this seemed such an Irish story, but nothing was as compelling.
So, we finally said, ‘Yes, it’s going to be these women’s story’,” Moukarzel says. “And all those questions: the right to tell a story, the ethical implications — that’s what the play became about.
We kept talking about what a Tom Murphy play about the Leixlip women would be. We’re not superior to that idea, we just knew we can’t do that. So, we thought, ‘What’s the other way’?”
The other way is a haunting speculation. The dead refuse to tell their tales. But we see them. The play taunts us with the unknowability of their experience, raising questions about not only drama, but human relations.
There’s been nothing like it on an Irish stage.
Lippy opens tomorrow on the Abbey Theatre’s Peacock Stage
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