Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan have been working together as artistic directors of Brokentalkers since 2001. Renowned for innovative, experimental work, their new production This Beach explores the refugee crisis currently gripping Europe.
Keegan remarks that as a company, Brokentalkers are “always kind of responding to what’s happening in society and politics, there’s always that sort of social engagement with the work. This Beach is very much a response to the ongoing refugee crisis, although it’s not a documentary piece, it’s more of an allegorical telling of that story.”
The piece began when the pair were approached in 2014 by Anna Mülter, a Berlin-based producer working on the Europoly festival with the Munich Kammerspiele. Cannon explains, “She pitched to us that we would be the Irish artists in a group of pan-European artists making work about Europe. At that time Gary and I were researching climate change with a view to making a piece about that subject, and in our research we became more interested in the reasons why people move, emigrate, migrate, due to climate change. And then, kind of at the same time as that, these awful tragedies in the Mediterranean started to happen, this time last year. And our focus moved from the bigger, kind of, global idea of climate change to the really personal reasons why people would risk their lives to move on to another country.”
“Some of our previous work has been working in collaboration with people and their real stories. So we decided to meet a lot of people who had a stake in the subject matter here in Ireland, and then we went to a refugee camp in Spandau in Berlin to meet people who lived there and people who run that camp, with a view to interviewing refugees, maybe taking their stories, maybe making a documentary piece. We didn’t really know what we were going to do. But when we got to the camp we met these amazing people who worked in the camp and lots of people who lived there. They had a theatre group in existence, they were making really great work. They were a little sceptical about why we would knock on their door, ask to interview them, ask about their story. Because that happens a lot, artists knock on the door and ask you to tell them your story.”
“They were less interested to talk to us about their journey to Germany because that wasn’t necessarily important any more. What was important was that day and the struggles they’re having in the equivalent of direct provision here in Ireland. Living in these camps, not being able to work and earn a living and travel and all those things. That’s what’s important.”
“It was a weird journey back on the train and then on the plane. We talked a lot. We didn’t know what we were going to do but we knew what we weren’t going to do. We didn’t feel we had the right to knock on their door and take their story and never see them again, because we’re not a part of that story. So in our previous work like The Blue Boy, which is about institutional abuse here in Ireland, as Irish people we’re a part of that story. Have I No Mouth which is my story, my family’s story about the death of my father, obviously that’s my story and we’re connected to that. But this subject matter, we felt less connected to it. And we felt our only way in was the fact that we’re European, we’re white Europeans, kind of privileged, not financially, we’re not rich as artists, but we can move around Europe and the world relatively easily. So we decided to make a piece of work about Europe and Europeans because that’s what we can write from.”
After a very well received premiere in Munich in February, This Beach is set to be performed as part of the Fringe Festival. Keegan explains, “In a way it’s kind of written with the Irish audience in mind, in terms of the energy of it and the fact that most of the cast are Irish as well. In a way they’re representing the Irish, even though they’re also representing this sort of strange European gentry. A lot of what they say is actually lifted from things that we’ve heard Irish people around here say about immigrants and about migrants. So a lot of the racism that they spew forth is stuff that we’ve overheard on the street here about immigration policy.”
Cannon adds, “Donald Trump, he’s a great source of material as well,” and also mentions the influence of the Brexit referendum on the writing of the piece. Keegan elaborates: “Yeah that was a huge boost for our reserves of text ideas as well. To take some of those sentiments about, you know, us being better on our own — ‘we don’t need anybody else’ — these kinds of ideas. When the stranger does arrive on the beach, one of the points of view is ‘it was just better when he wasn’t here, we should just get rid of him, just go back to the way it was.’ So that’s quite close to the sentiment of some of the Brexit folk who kind of imagine Britain in the ’50s and ’60s probably being this fabulous place, which I don’t think it was.”
Despite the “dark subject,” Cannon maintains that there’s humour to be found in the piece. “I suppose how we found that was in making the piece absurd. It’s an absurdist piece, and that’s been fun, it’s been fun to write that. You know, when you see Brokentalkers are making a show about the refugee crisis, you probably have an image in your head of what that’s going to be, but I think it’s a little different to what people expect.”
According to Keegan, “it’s very lively, it’s very colourful, the text is very sharp and the observations are kind of fun. For the audience, they’ll recognise, if not themselves then certainly somebody they know in the sentiments that are expressed. It does a lot of things, it talks about migration as a necessity as well. One of the characters is an amateur archaeologist, and he spends his time digging up the beach and uncovering the history of the beach. And the artefacts that he digs up are all symbols of European conflict, European history. He talks about the fact that migration is something that has happened since the dawn of man. That’s how we survived as a species, we avoided peril, we moved toward climates and environments that were more habitable, hospitable, safer. We’ve done that forever. And that’s really all that’s happening here.”
This Beach runs from Saturday 10th to Saturday 17th September at the Project Arts Centre.
Words: Naoise Murphy