Seemingly intent on questioning and subverting the trend of verbatim theatre, the young Irish company Dead Centre is also resolute in restoring visual artistry to the notion of (documentary) theatre. Indeed the piece begins with a staged Q and A: we all pretend – the audience loves it! – that we are in a post-show discussion. This allows for the conceptual framework of the piece to be introduced in a gentle and predominantly entertaining way – the piece is interested in the ‘voice as a site of meaning and site of power’, in the unreliability of ‘lip-reading’, in the fusion and separation of the seen and the heard in theatre.
The discussion is facilitated by Bush Moukarzel – the actual author of the piece – although he introduces himself as a supporting actor previously employed by the company. The set up allows for some irony and playful digs at the director Ben Kidd, but it also reveals Moukarzel as a skilled and likeable actor whose conversational chatter is still convincing despite the well lived in, well travelled nature of this particular festival piece (shown previously at Dublin, Wiesbaden and Edinburgh). Eventually the curtain lifts and we are given the opportunity to see the piece that we have only heard about.
Its subject matter is a dark one – the production is about four women engaged in a suicide pact by starvation which lasted for 40 days and took place in an Irish village in 2000. But it is also dreamlike, imaginative, provocative – a series of stark, poignant, highly lyrical vignettes presented apparently in a reversed order, and then disrupted further by flights of fancy. The four women – chosen perhaps to represent a wide range of Irish female physicality (tall, short, redhead, brunette) – are extraordinarily watchable. Former ballet dancer Joanna Banks plays the eldest of those who committed suicide, the aunt to the three nieces. Her death is imagined in a way that resembles a leaf in the autumn wind. The set, consisting mostly of poeticized debris, is designed by a sculptor; the engulfing soundscape by an actor – the piece as a whole is commendable in its multi-faceted ambitions.
Most intriguingly, the publicity for the show declares that this is a play about authorship and ‘the role of the writer’ but disappointingly the piece does not consciously cast any more light on this question other than to allude to Samuel Beckett as the ultimate theatre author. It is a company clearly capable of taking their heritage into the 21st century, and it remains to be hoped that they will continue to do so.