Saturday, October 25, 2014

Makaronik (Dave Duggan/Aisling Ghéar) - Can language be eliminated? Why does culture threaten?

Playwright Dave Duggan describes himself as being “in the pleasure business”. He invites audiences to come and experience the Irish language and enjoy engaging with it in a theatrical setting.

Makaronik is his latest play, set in a futuristic 2084 when the Empire is in crisis and tidying up dormant stray elements of language that if ignored might later turn into threats.

The Centre has sent guards Gráinne (played by Mary Conroy) and Dairmuid (Cillian O’Gairbhí) to the Béal Feirste outpost to arrange for the remaining Irish stories, songs and poems to be archived by its last remaining resident Makaronik (Liz Fitzgibbon) and shipped back to headquarters. Then it will be JOB JOB DONE with LOOSE ENDS NO. Unlike their last assignment in Dakar where they got distracted: LIE DOWN LIE DOWN. MISTAKE MAJOR. JOB FAIL DUTY FAIL.

Gráinne and Dairmuid’s mother tongue is Empirish, but over the years they’ve picked up smatterings of other languages, including English which has been DEAD DEAD for many years. Yet given the cultural cleansing that has already been completed, they are surprised and feel insecure when Irish-speaking Makaronik demonstrates a knowledge and use of more languages than they expect: Latin, English and even Empirish. (Though the pair from the Centre might be equally shocked to discover most of the audience is fluent in Empirish by the end of the show too! EMPIRISH EASY LEARN LEARN.)

Makaronik doesn’t want to leave. And Gráinne could be persuaded to stay and abandon her mission of language genocide.

There’s more than a touch of Blake’s 7 in David Craig’s set. Old domestic machines lie on their sides, scavenged for wire and parts, and curvy coloured panels hanging from the roof. Chris Hunter’s Empire uniform favours knee-length leather boots, and Decathlon-style tight fitting black tops with simple colour detailing, and communicators fitted to the palm of its agents’ hands.

About three quarters of the dialogue is in Irish, the rest in English and Empirish (which has its roots in Orwell’s Newspeak (1984), pidgin English and a little Clockwork Orange and Harrison Ford/Blade Runner).

Makaronik is definitely a much trickier play to engage with if you have no Irish. It’s like watching CEEFAX with a set top aerial on a portable TV: parts of the page of text are missing. In the case of this play, most of the words are missing. Every minute or two another crib note in English will flash up on the three monitors above the actors’ heads, usually with a summary of a particular plot point rather than a translation of what was being said. (Personally I'd double the number of crib notes.)

The playwright likens it to watching an Italian Opera. The audience follow the action and understand the story through the clues given in gestures, facial expressions, the tone and their imagination. For Makaronik, the acting and interactions are good and as I type this the morning after I’ve a clear idea of what the play was about.

Yet sitting last night in the Lyric Theatre and watching the action, there was time to think. A bit too much time in-between the sporadic on-screen crib notes. It is clear that the science fiction play is richer for those who bring both Irish and English into the theatre. The wordplay will be greater, along with the precision with which audience members pick up the nuances of the characterisation and plot.

Audiences will – and should – choose to come into a somewhat alien environment, outside their comfort zone and enjoy what they can. Language should open doors, should increase understanding and expression. If there’s a message from last night’s performance it is that we need to get over our fear of languages and stop being threatened by them. Culture and language can’t be killed, they can’t easily be suppressed or eliminated. They tend to live on in people’s hearts.

Makaronik is on in the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast Festival (Saturday 25 at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm) before touring in Galway, Monaghan, Derry, Maghera and Dublin. You can read Dave Duggan’s article on Culture Northern Ireland to get more background on why he wrote Makaronik.

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