Have I No Mouth – Sydney Festival

Grief is such a huge, overwhelming part of our lives, so much so that sometimes it seems impossible to overcome. Of course it occurs in our art all the time, all these shapes and stories of death and loss and loneliness; how else do we deal with something so human except to examine it through the ways we know how to communicate? What else to do with grief, when you’re an artist, than put that grief on stage?

Feidlim Cannon took his family experience of loss, including his own mother and their own psychotherapist and put it into a play, and has taken it fair around the world now, a theatre experience stark in its universality. His father Sean has died, and in his past, another loss – a newborn, baby Sean – and without any answers for why this happens (except for the ones he does have, which are distressing) or how we’re supposed to survive it, Cannon has brought it and his support system to us.

Have I No Mouth. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Have I No Mouth. Photo by Prudence Upton.

An agonising, uplifting, tender therapy session that unfolds like a memory play, Have I No Mouth is gentle around the edges and deeply blistering in the centre. The memories that Cannon and his mother Ann possess that play around the backs of their brains most of all are brought forth: a glass of Guinness, a dinner table, an operating table. The set is spare and trusts these three people on stage – one is a performer, his mother Ann and psychotherapist Erich Keller are not – to carry the show on their own power. Somehow, they do. It helps that this mother-son duo are true mother and son; their closeness and fond irritation with each other is uplifting, as much as memories of small, ignorant cruelties in their pasts are so challenging.

Have I No Mouth. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Have I No Mouth. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Old photographs, old videos. A tattoo, in memory. Balloons, dozens of balloons, hundreds of balloons. At one point, the audience, who are all holding balloons of their own, are asked to complete an anger exercise with them. Is this group therapy or theatre? With the lines so blurred it hardly matters, as long as we recognise what this is: an excavation of negativity and misery, overturned into something that, like a gift, can be shared.

Have I No Mouth is an opportunity to share in the destruction of grief and death and to not feel guilty about it, and while probably more successful for those who have been rocked by transformative loss than those who have been lucky yet to experience it, it’s a lovely, dreamlike, honest meditation on how we all fall apart a little, while demonstrating in the flesh that we can put ourselves back together again, somehow.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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