“Have I No Mouth?”

at the Traverse Theatre, Friday 9th August 2013

*Originally written for Culture Wars*

If I’m being perfectly honest, my heart sank during the first five minutes of Have I No Mouth. As soon as Feidlim Cannon mentions that his mother (Ann, who appears with him on stage) is interested in reiki healing and colour therapy and that the show would be about “healing”, the rational part of me began ringing its alarm bells, expecting a defence of alternative medicines. But the show does nothing of the sort. Instead, it offers an offbeat, deeply felt and theatrical look at the way in which we make ourselves better after traumatic events, considering how the theatre can help in this.

Feidlim lost his father Sean (and Ann her husband) in 2001, and his baby brother Sean about fifteen years earlier. This is a show about coming to terms with those losses (they believe the father, at least, could have been saved), and their therapist Erich Keller helps them to understand their feelings about their loss. It begins normally enough, with Keller teaching us how to use an “anger balloon” to relieve stress and the pair naming objects which hold an emotional significance for them, but soon it heads down a bizarre, provocative path as healing and remembering start to become more bound up together.

Through their process of healing, Feidlim begins placing the figure of father onto his psychotherapist, until he actively ‘plays’ the older Sean, complete with boxing helmet and bandaged face, having a ball kicked at him and a pint of Guinness poured over his head. He’s not only a man who helps him talk about it; he is also a surrogate punchbag.

An interesting thread running throughout the show is that of truth. Ann and Feidlim play out conversations on stage where they discuss what did or didn’t happen in the past, and the air of honesty which has already been created means we invest in the argument more because the setup is so much more aware of itself as a piece of performance than a conventional play. Though this has clearly been performed many times before, there’s nonetheless something extremely raw about it. And though the focus is the two Seans, I found myself interpreting the events on stage into something far more personal to me.

It’s difficult to know quite how much Have I No Mouth is about this mother and son helping themselves understand their losses and how much it is about healing in general, but Gary Keegan’s direction manages to create some powerful images regardless. From “a coffin for a baby” to a game of Operation and a simulated Christmas dinner with cardboard cutouts of children, there is no shortage of visual signifiers. And then, right at the end – releasing a downpour of objects in a way which is becoming rather staple at this year’s fringe – a multitude of balloons cascades over the audience as the anger in the room dissipates and the process comes to an end.

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