In 2000, four women were found dead in their home in Leixlip, County Kildare. Frances Mulrooney and her three nieces, Josephine, Brigid Ruth and Catherine had chosen to starve themselves to death in a suburban house in Ireland.
Their reasons are unknown. The women destroyed any trace of their existence, any evidence of their plans. This strange case was mentioned to Bush Moukarzel, who lives in Dublin. He brought the idea to fellow company founders Adam Welsh and Ben Kidd. From their initial fascination, Dead Centre developed their show Lippy.
The show was first performed in Dublin in 2013. The production has since toured to Germany, New York and the Edinburgh Fringe before its current run at the Young Vic in London.
I spoke with director Ben Kidd about how the production attempted to tell the story of these women, without words.
“One of the difficulties of writing a play about a real life event was we’re always assuming why someone did something,” Kidd said of the writing process. In British theatre, there is a strong tradition of being faithful to a script, but when there aren’t enough words to create a script, especially one of a true story, it is hard to make a genuine narrative.
“[The writer] assumes a knowledge and finds closure; the author has a take on the events,” Kidd explained. “[The writer] forms a character’s journey, presenting the significant moment when they decide to do something.” With this case, they didn’t have access to any details, so there was more which needed to be fabricated if they were going to tell the story.
“When you start to build a narrative about this, it feels icky,” Kidd recalled the difficulties of creating so much from so little. They had nothing to go on, save a few scraps of a letter written by Brigid Ruth and CCTV footage of two of the sisters in a shopping centre before they disappeared.
The women took steps to erase their existence by destroying their documents. Black bin liners of wet and shredded paper were found in the house.
“The destroying of their possessions and paperwork was rational, it was private. It was them saying ‘we don’t want to be interpreted.’ These women specifically did not want to share their reasons with the world. What right [does Dead Centre] have to share them?”
So, if they acknowledge that we have no right to explain why this happened, why has Dead Centre chosen to make a play about this event?
“It was an act of such extraordinary strangeness,” Kidd said. “We were interested in, firstly, how do you tell the story – both practically and how dare you tell this kind of story – and secondly we wanted to express the horror we felt about this story.”
Through combining this story with another project, Lippy could take a form which explored the Leixlip case, but remained faithful to the lack of evidence.
“We had started working on a different show based on lip reading. Moukarzel had also been working on [the Leixlip story] and we thought there is something in linking these two ideas.”
The play starts with a post show talk which features an interview with actor David Heap. As part of the talk, Heap and Moukarzel discuss the Leixlip case, and the imprecisions of lip reading.
A lip reading demonstration develops into a flashback of sorts, and the play begins to scrape together words to place into the mouths of these women.
The lip reading element shows how easy it is to misinterpret and combines effectively with ambiguity of the story.
“It opened up an interesting thing about context,” Kidd explained. “Mouth shapes for different words look similar – it isn’t easy to get right.”
Without context it is tough to lip read accurately. Therefore the CCTV footage does not offer any real insight. Lippy highlights the difficulty of speaking for another, either through interpretation, or through creating a story from a true event.
This is something Dead Centre have been very aware of in making this play. The women are mute and the play remains faithful to their chosen silence. Kidd does not claim to have any answers about why this atrocity happened, he wanted the play to be open for the audience to interpret.
“[People have] a need to share and to speculate and we wanted to open up a space for the audience to speculate about this,” Kidd said.
“We wanted to show the implications of putting words in other people’s mouths,” he concluded.
When faced with the struggle to tell a story in the usual way, Dead Centre chose to find different methods to share this extraordinary event. Their production transcends words.
Lippy runs at the Young Vic until 21 March 2015, before touring the UK until April 2015.