FIND 2016
Unfinished Plays for Unfinished People: Dead Centre in Berlin

by Joseph Pearson

18 March 2016

Directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd will soon be in Berlin for FIND, with their Irish theatre team, Dead Centre, and two productions, »LIPPY« and »Chekhov’s First Play«. Both draw their energies from a mysterious source hinted in the name of the company: the absence of meaning at the centre of theatrical study.

Dead Centre is very much the inheritor of Beckettian tropes – such as waiting, not knowing, and failure – as well as the Irish playwright’s permeability to the Continent for material and intellectual exchange. These starting points, however, are complicated by perspectives from psychoanalysis and cognitive approaches.

I imagine Dead Centre staring into the darkness, casting their gaze to rough and unfinished cultural objects in the dim. Unsolved crimes or failed literary works are likely to catch their attention. »LIPPY« is the story of four women who starve themselves in a suicide pact in County Kildare in 2000; they leave little behind to elucidate their motives. »Chekhov’s First Play« (1878), known alternatively as »Platonov« for its protagonist, is a rambling 5-hour mess, rejected at the time as not performable, and subsequently subject to various acts of resuscitation by zealous Chekhovian dramaturges and directors. Dead Centre’s version compresses the play to a fifth of the original length, and adds a wry meta-commentary on headphones worn by the audience.

I spoke to Bush Moukarzel about the pieces coming to Berlin, Dead Centre’s peculiar perspective on them, and why he does theatre.

Pearson: Did one project grow out of the other?

Moukarzel: Not necessarily. »LIPPY« came first, written 3-4 years ago. »Chekhov« came last year, as a larger-scale project and a bigger technological undertaking. There’s more joy in »Chekhov«, and »LIPPY« is a sadder case.

How did you come to the story of »LIPPY«?

I encountered it through a friend, I was intrigued by his strange interest in it, in the brute force of the mystery. I then discussed with an anthropologist about how society reacted to it, and the semiotics of newspaper reporting of the event: how the story shifted as elements became clearer, how news material was placed on the page (say, next to an advert for a cooker)… how information sits within a culture, contextualised. It was not just an event for us, we needed to understand it. And how, then, do we contextualise the suicides? As a symbol of the post-religious era in Ireland? In consumer culture, with religion becoming a fringe pursuit? Was eviction the catalyst, symptomatic of the boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger? These evicted women were then rehoused in the Silicon Valley of Ireland, full of young professionals, the elderly were isolated, disconnected: a case of miscommunication in the heart of the communication industry. When there is more than one reading, how does one prioritise? All seemed to be circulating around a core of unknowability. Unknowable in two senses: structural, in terms of what happened. And also metaphysical, in dealing with death as such. Here, you might use the Lacanian lens, in thinking about the Real, the enticement to interpret. Or think more dramatically, in terms of Beckett, the compulsion to express when you cannot.

Are you drawn to explanations from the field of cognitive science in terms of how individuals actually process information in their brains?

At the risk of giving something away, we use a lip reader in the project, and here the question of our mental limitations comes into play. The »LIPPY« project is split on two sides: the event, and also how we interface with the event. On the women’s last journey out of their home, to Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre, their last shop, it was not for food, but for items linked to their death pact. Two sisters were caught on CCTV speaking. At this time the house was treated as a crime scene – as a bizarre manslaughter originally – and the first gesture of the police was to employ a lip reader to understand what they were saying. This provides a dramatic context of literally putting words in people’s mouths, when structurally it is not your story to tell. A man is putting words in women’s mouths. There are ambiguities in our ability to interpret: the same shapes of the mouth can actually produce multiple words. And so, for a lip reader, context becomes important. Lexicon is based on context.

You describe then the hermeneutical process of reconstructing partial evidence. How do you make this theatrically, as well, as philosophically compelling? What other methods beyond the lip reader?

I think that brings us to the question of what theatre is for, what its function is, whether it has one. To ask that question, initially one can offset it against what it looks like: journalism, for example. There is a thorough covering of what we can know in the case on paper: court hearings, the toxicology reports. On the other hand, if we want to know why, we have editorials. Theatre is useless in imparting the information, of going and telling it. It is slow: slow to make, slow to travel, be seen, and few people see it. You’d have to be dumb to think it is the outlet for imparting information. But theatre can do something else, which is investigate the meaning of meaninglessness. This might seem indulgent or obtuse. But maybe theatricality, as such, is to begin what looks like an investigation to bring it to a space of silence that is completely shared. Everyone, nobody, ultimately knows what is going on. And so they share a mystery, as in a secular church. The looking is the gesture, and we are asked to keep going.

Could you tell me about stagecraft, sound, blocking, how this all happens on stage?

There is a shared sensibility in the pieces. »LIPPY« employs a mix of performers and dancers. Language is not centre stage. Dancers, focusing on form, bring the audience down to a prosaic sense of movement. They bring us to a sense of heightened banality. This silent dumb show of dancers makes choreographic links to lighting and design – the whole room becomes »the thing«. Everything is asking you »where does the meaning lie«? For the women, the search for God in their tomb became increasingly godless. They suffered difficult deaths, which was not their intention perhaps. The composition of the piece is to provide the appearance of a balance of meaning, where all is in harmony, where not one explanation dominates.

Speaking of heightened banality, this brings us to »Chekhov’s First Play«. Why did you choose to perform a piece that is known as »unperformable«? I have the feeling that is precisely why you chose it. Am I wrong?

Heightened banality: yes, that works for Chekhov. If you do nothing well enough, in the end that is something. The piece is full of figures waiting, we really exaggerate that quality of waiting in »Platonov«, a world that always seems to expect something.

»Chekhov’s First Play« is part of a wider project of looking at first plays of 20th century masters: the other two are Brecht’s »Baal« , which he rejected as non-Brechtian and indulgent; and Beckett’s »Eleutheria«, which one cannot stage. In the case of »Eleutheria«, there are no rights available, which is a gift to us, because it provides us with the question of censorship and how to do it (without doing it). We feel a great kinship with all three: because they are bad works, rejected works. We have a strange affinity with bad works. They are excessive, dramatically incorrect, precocious. Perfect works don’t need me, I’m not about to direct »The Cherry Orchard«. These are unfinished plays for unfinished people. The audience feels closer to them, because of their incompleteness. We are not going to correct them, there is no dramaturgical tidying, we do not correct their texture which is schizoid and fractured. The incompleteness is instead metaphysical, and joyous.

But is there not some level of tidying by using a voice over, the directorial meta-commentary listened to by the audience on headphones that you use to introduce »Chekhov’s First Play«?

The voice over is a way in. There is the question: how do you start a show? Why are we here? We need to negotiate our relationship to the artificiality of the event. How do we talk to each other. This has become a historical necessity. The big question is: why for some reason have we reached a juncture where we need to negotiate why we’ve gathered together in the theatre? It’s like with a drug where we have grown immune to its delivery systems. We need to find novel interfaces of welcoming. The director’s commentary becomes a joyous opportunity. It can start as a method that is recognizable, but then break down in twists and turns. It can appeal to us at a primary level, gut level, the voice can be joyous and curious. It is also metaphysical: it does a job, the voice controls the event. But then the project stalls, the voice withdraws, and nobody is in charge, we are left to our anxieties. Chekhov charted one social order breaking down and asked what’s coming.

Platonov proposes a »superfluous« man, and it is not clear what Chekhov makes of this vicious, sadistic portrait. I have been thinking of Maurizio Lazzarato’s »The Making of the Indebted Man«, who speaks in the context of the sovereign debt crisis, and how the greatest subject of late capitalism is the indebted subject, and how every subject takes on literal individual debt. But the effect is not just literal but also psychological, because it determines behaviour, there is hegemonic social control. The future is controlled by forces such as guilt, a Judeo-Christian shift where there is a price to pay. I believe there is a through line from the superfluous man to the indebted man in late capitalism.

After we finish our conversation, I am left considering the configuration between audience, theatre company, and material that Bush Moukarzel proposes. When the centre is dead, intangible, perhaps the creative move is to turn our attention to the edges – to what is happening off-stage. We might shift our gaze from the unfinished plays and their indebted subjects to the painfully unfinished predicament in which we, the audience, live. But I’m sure Dead Centre would resist a simple Marxist turn in the analysis, an effort to sew up their efforts, the invitation to pursue moral or political perfection beyond the edges of the stage. This is rather too neat for me as well, and I find myself, nervously, half in love with Dead Centre’s negative capability, with the tugging gravity of imperfection. Dead Centre invites us to take part as unfinished people in an unfinished process. As Moukarzel says, »I’m not sure what theatre is for, but perhaps the shows are answering that question«.

Chekhov’s First Play

by Dead Centre (Ireland)
Direction: Ben Kidd, Bush Moukarzel

Premiered on 8 April 2016