“Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind. All sides endlessness earth sky as one no sound no stir. Grey face two pale blue little body heart beating only up right. Blacked out fallen open four walls over backwards true refuge issueless,” reads the opening section to Beckett’s prose piece Lessness, originally published as Sans in 1969. The last time I was sitting across from Olwen Fouéré, she was looking out at the audience from the Project Arts Centre stage, seated behind an open desk with her hands clasped in front, delivering the cryptic and rhythmic 60 lines that Beckett put to paper. Adapted for the stage by a team brought together through Fouéré’s larger conceptual project known as TheEmergencyRoom, the performance embodied the verbal qualities of Beckett’s prose, while also recreating the stillness and timelessness that occurs through the act of reading. Throughout the performance of the text, the soundtrack — Phil Niblock’s Stosspeng, the title of which is a play on the names of the musicians Robert Poss and Susan Stenger whom the piece was written for — seemed to form the syntax to the stream of cryptic words, with its long guitar and bass drones almost breathing for the performer, as each instrument slowly drifted from one tuning to the next.
Sitting across from Fouéré again, this time in an empty hotel lounge, the soundtrack of Christmas songs playing out through the speakers does the exact opposite, intermittently breaking both of our trains of thought over the course of our conversation. Fouéré has just come from a rehearsal with fellow actors Judith Roddy and Emmanuel Obaya. They are preparing Danse, Morob — an upcoming performance that sees a return to the Project Arts Centre stage, with a team brought together by TheEmergencyRoom. It also sees the return of another collaboration between Fouéré, and the French playwright and novelist, Laurent Gaudé, after premiering his work, Sodome, my love, in 2010. Gaudé, a recipient of the 2004 Prix Goncourt literature award, wrote Danse, Morob specifically for Fouéré. “We just kept in touch … and we were out one night in Paris, and he said, I’ve got this idea, I really want to write something for you. Would you be in any way interested? He was assuming I wouldn’t be, and I said of course, because his writing is extraordinary. He is such an extraordinary writer, and he just had one idea, which was basically, a woman who carries her father on her shoulders. He has worked from that idea into what you read in Danse, Morob.”
When describing TheEmergencyRoom, Fouéré explains that the name is derived from her ongoing multi-decade collaboration with the composer Roger Doyle. The two work together in a musical theatre project called Operating Theatre. Her latest conceptual project, created in 2009, while very much driven by her experiences with Operating Theatre, exists more as a holding space. “TheEmergencyRoom is a space full of projects on life support. Some of them die off. I describe it as projects in need of immediate attention, so you kind of look after them when you can’t make them happen. Sometimes they just fall away, but then others just stay, and then you finally get to a point where you say OK, I’ll start working on this. It has given me a virtual space to put those ideas, and that’s how it has happened. Danse, Morob was put into TheEmergencyRoom, because if someone like Laurent offers to write something, I have to take care of it. It’s like a gift, and so it went into TheEmergencyRoom, but it wasn’t really on life support. It was fine. It was just waiting”.
Danse, Morob is a magic realist story, interspersed with political accounts of the “no wash protest” and Long Kesh, a personal account of Fouéré’s father’s funeral, and a metaphorical pack of dogs that guide the main character in a search for her father. When describing Gaudé’s magical realist approach, Fouéré explains, “I think it’s a feature of a lot of his work. There are several aspects; one is the very porous membrane between the living and the dead; how easy it is to speak to somebody who is dead, or how easy it is for a person to appear and speak to you. Also, how a world morphs and transforms into something else, almost effortlessly. A woman being led by a pack of dogs, she’s been walking with them for days, she sleeps with them in the forest, these are really tangible realities, but they come through this internal transformation which manifests in a physical world”.
I was intrigued by the imagery behind the poster for the production, and Fouéré shows me reference images of a still frame from Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, as well as a picture of a muddy and murky Liffey at low tide. Fouéré adds, “I think the river is a powerful metaphor. The river is a fluid thing, and it’s a recycling of the past and the future”, nodding to her recent performance of riverrun — Fouéré’s adaptation of the voice of the river ‘Life’ in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. “When we were trying to think of a location for the shoot, we were working with this idea of an interrogation room. It’s not set in an interrogation room within the text, but we’re creating a pressure on the piece where she’s talking about her father’s confinement, in prison, but actually her necessity of speaking, of telling it, is almost like she’s bearing witness, and under pressure to tell. So almost replicating that entrapment … You notice the clothes I’m wearing? I had this idea that she would wear her father’s clothes.
She’s trying to search for the body of her father. She thinks he’s dead but, in fact, he’s not dead as it turns out. She’s led by a pack of dogs all the time. To me, they’re like a collective energy. They’re the energy of the unresolved, of the thing that has to be sorted. They’re the energy of revolution and rebellion, but they’re also the energy of [pauses] it’s that thing that pushes you to resolve unresolved things. One cannot say this country is in any way resolved, given the political situation, so I was drawing on that. She’s in some kind of confined space, and with a little echo of the prison, and the dog is coming to prompt her into action. That’s basically the idea behind it. The main image we have of the poster is, her in this space that could be anything. She could’ve been beaten up, she could be asleep, it could be any of those things, and the dog is coming towards her as a manifestation of her restless unconscious … Tarkovsky always ends up being an inspiration. It’s always the same when you’re working on something and you’re trying to find what the connections are, and suddenly these images come into your mind”.
Some of the themes explored throughout Danse, Morob are memory and radical legacy. When asked to elaborate, Fouéré finds a quote by Mahatma Ghandi, jotted in her phone, and reads it aloud: “‘It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our breasts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence’. I think that’s great. I think we have to acknowledge that. Would we have reached the Peace Process in Northern Ireland without the violence [of the hunger strikes]? Maybe, but it’s possibly unlikely. To me it’s this thing of acknowledging what happened and what people had to do, the lengths to which they had to go to. I’m sure many activists end up completely forgotten about, their actions are completely forgotten about. Even symbolically it seems important to me to somehow deliver that legacy into the future. In the end of Danse, Morob, she finds him – her father. She feels like she could attack him for leaving them all. But she just says, ‘That old man there, with his broken phrases’, he has become completely part of nature. He doesn’t want to go back to the grave. He says, ‘Don’t bury me, don’t bury me’, and she brings him back to the river, and delivers him into the river, where he lives into eternity, until he wants to die. To me, delivering him into the river is delivering him into the DNA of the future”.
As part of Project 50, TheEmergencyRoom and Project Arts Centre present Danse, Morob, written by Laurent Gaudé, Thursday 12th to Saturday 28th January at Project Arts Centre, Essex Street East, Temple Bar. Tickets cost €18 to €22.
For more see theemergencyroom.ie/about-danse-morob
Words: Sharon Phelan