Have I No Mouth is extraordinary theatre. I was on the verge of tears for most of it, but it took me somewhere beautiful.
Co-writers and directors Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keenan are co-artistic directors of the Dublin-based company Brokentalkers, which they were among the founders of in 2001. Wanting to explore new forms that challenge everything about text-based theatre, the company creates what they call Live Performance, a collaborative process drawing from skills and experiences beyond theatre.
In Have I No Mouth, Cannon is joined by his mother (Ann Cannon) and their psychotherapist (Erich Keller). Ann and Erich aren’t theatre makers.
Feidlim and Ann saw the psychotherapist together and individually to work through their ongoing grief and pain over the death of brother and son baby Sean when he was 15 hours old and Feidlim was 6, and the death of father and husband Sean when Feidlim was in his early 20s. Ann and Sean met when they were 15 and 16.
On his practice’s website, Erich Keller describes how he forms a bond with clients to develop “hopeful and creative ways” to reconcile difficulties. The on-stage therapy, including counselling, dream work, object work, re-inactment and surrogacy, is taken out of consulting room and made theatrical. Young Feidlim and his brother are life-size cut out photos. Ann talks to her young son. Feidlim dances. Erich becomes the father who visits in dreams.
They share how they found a way through the insanity, anger and farce – let’s not forget the funny moments – of grief. Ann is a believing Christian and is now a colour therapist and practices Reiki (which is part of the stage ritual and telling), Feidlim made a piece of theatre that’s taken him and his mum around the world. Neither advocate any way to heal and, for all its unflinching honesty, it’s presented with a distance that allows for empathy without judgement.
It’s a work about grief, but it’s ultimately a story about Feidlim and Ann and the mother–son relationship and dynamic. It’s written into the work but is so palpable on the stage that there’s no question that either would ruin the “play” without hesitation if the other weren’t feeling safe.
It also leaves us with so many questions. We might want to know what happened when Feidlim asked his mum to make a piece of theatre on their holiday to Spain, how they convinced the Erich to be involved, what happened with the legal case over Sean’s misdiagnosis, how the other brother is going, or why we never see a photo of Sean – but none of this is part of this story, and none of our business. The unanswered and unspoken questions remind us that it is a piece of theatre, and that stories in theatre are rarely verbatim truth.
Have I No Mouth is harrowing and astonishing in its deeply human sharing of grief, but its catharsis is so real that it becomes a sharing of joy and hope.
PS. I think this is an unmissable piece, but last night I told two friends not to see it as their current experiences are too close.