A horrifically painful group suicide is an unseemly, even grotesque, context for an exercise in basic linguistics. Or, it would be in the hands of anyone other than Dead Centre, the consummately inventive Irish company that put Marcel Proust on a treadmill in last year’s acclaimed Souvenir. Bush Moukarzel, who wrote and starred in that sprint of semiotic derring-do, digs deeper into the language of signs in Lippy, wrenching a gripping triptych on the search for meaning from a mysterious case that made headlines in Ireland and the UK in 2000.
That case involves the collective death of four women from the same family, in the village of Leixlip, outside of Dublin. Reclusive people, these three sisters and their aunt starved themselves for over a month without anyone’s knowledge, sealing the doors and windows against intruders, leaving only bags of shredded documents, a few letters, and the police and the media to speculate on their motives.
In our 24/7 “news” culture, it’s not hard to imagine the sensationalistic treatment their suicide pact and gruesome deaths received. And so, at first, Lippy’s incongruous title seems to promise a tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of a media frenzy. Moukarzel is after something more meaningful, however, that goes beyond anecdotal reports of the women’s religious fanaticism or whatever might have spurred their desperate or rebellious act (this being Ireland, with a long history of hunger strikers).
The show, which won both Fringe First and Herald Angel awards at Edinburgh this year, is organized into three parts. In the first, Moukarzel and Dead Centre’s sound designer, Adam Welsh, are on stage waiting for the actor, Daniel Reardon, to join them for a talkback on his role as the Lip-Reader in a play on the Leixlip suicides (which we have supposedly just seen). Moukarzel gushes appropriately at Reardon’s tale of how the show was conceived and developed, and Adam throws in some footage of famous lip-reading scenes imagined by Hollywood. Yet Reardon’s description of his importance to the case, as a forensic lip-reader employed by the Gardaí to decipher the women’s speech when two of them were captured on closed circuit television in a Dublin shopping center, proves flawed, and a subsequent “live” lip-reading experiment with Moukarzel drives the point home.
When this bit of meta-theater abruptly gives way to the matter of the suicides themselves, in the second part, the shift is all the more jarring. Moukarzel doesn’t hesitate on the threshold of whether and how to speak of the unspeakable. The four women (Joanna Banks, Gina Moxley, Caitriona Ni Mhurchu and Liv O’Donoghue, all of whom almost pulsate with an inner resolve and purpose) suddenly appear, menacing and grave at first, in dark coats, holding suspended rubbish bags like sinister balloons. But they will appear vital also, as they prepare for, suffer and witness the effects of a decision whose consequences, as revealed in one sister’s letter, were far more devastating than they ever could have imagined. And they will die, in awkward poses of great physical and moral distress, in jets of blood and urine.
However, the circumstances of their deaths aren’t Moukarzel’s focus either; the Lip-Reader is there too (Reardon again, without the post-show glow and self-assurance), having crawled out of one of the numerous garbage bags that are strewn across the women’s kitchen floor. He wants to apologize to them for having misreported that conversation he “saw” them having.
What falsehoods did he put in their mouths? Is there a truth to be gained about the Leixlip women and their suicide? Lippy, with its savant manipulation of the lip-reading metaphor – as the distortion of an elusive silence – makes a case that there is none.
The basis of Saussurean linguistics and semiology rests on the duality of a signifier or a sign, and a signified or a meaning. The chronology of what happened in an unremarkable, shuttered and barred house in Leixlip can be reconstituted from forensic reports and the letters found in the home. These are the concrete signs of the women’s presence in the world and their taking leave of it, and so can be meaningfully imagined on stage in the show’s central section, to provoke empathy and an inchoate kind of understanding.
However, in the absence of language, all that can remain are invented meanings and strategies – such as the talkback and the fictional play discussed in it, or the concluding speech, delivered by a huge, Beckettian mouth (and “cameo”-written by Irish playwright Mark O’Halloran) – to arrive at some version of the women’s intentions. Perhaps the only plausible conjecture that can be offered is that, even if these women had been listened to, and their lips not merely read, it’s doubtful the arc of their destinies would have changed.
For all its ironic posturing, Lippy does not give mere lip service to a mediatized conversation about a macabre fait divers. Notwithstanding an impression of haphazard slapdashery in its disjointed structure and failed narrator, who (deliberately) never finds his place in the story he has initiated, Dead Centre goes straight to the heart of the question. “Death is not an event but a process,” the mouth reminds us. “A small catastrophe, private, entirely personal. It can’t be shared, only witnessed, and even then, even that is futile. We go alone.” Dead Centre’s attentive listening to the signs of this personal tragedy stresses the human over the monstrous or even the transcendent, with Willy Nelson on the radio and the Lip-Reader and the sisters singing Don McLean’s “Crying in the Chapel.” “I’m almost in heaven,” the show’s leitmotif goes, intoned in divergent contexts, and a divine resting place, in fact, seems an unlikely possibility.
If it didn’t in real life, in Lippy at least, the mystery of these women’s self-abnegation shouts through all the white noise and silently moving lips. It is the sound of the absence of signifiers, and it is the only possible word of truth.