Could you tell me little about the story that inspired Lippy?
This is a real event that happened in the year 2000 here in Dublin. I actually heard about it after the fact, I was living in Dublin around 2004, I heard it reported and then researched the case and gathered all the available public domain information – all the newspaper reports, radio reports and Channel Four had made a documentary on it so I used that as well and anything that was available. In terms of the reporting and therefore the reaction to the event was the angle I was interested in rather than pursuing the biographical backgrounds of the women. As reported it was immediately treated as some kind of accident, maybe they’d been poisoned by faulty gas mains and slowly as the pathology reports came in as well as evidence found in the house like the letters written by one of the women to her sister slowly the picture and the true horror of what had happened came into focus, the truly bizarre suicide pact they’d entered into. So, that was the story as I encountered it.
You say in the press release for the show that you’re not looking for answers, but did you find yourself drawn to any conclusions as to why they did this?
It wasn’t really to do with feeling that that was an adequate thing to search for. It wasn’t a superior feeling, mocking some of the answers that had been sought and provided. It came from a feeling that the role of journalism and the role of legal proceedings, that was the domain of answers. Whether that’s literal answers as to how these women died or journalistic attempts to put the event into a social context and explain it saying ‘this is the end-point, the demise of the Celtic tiger, how displaced people had led to evictions or saying ‘this shows the consequences of the side-lining of religion in Ireland today, now it’s a sort of strange cult pursuit and it leads to some bizarre deaths like this or again a social reading saying that these women were living in area known as silicon valley – because it was the hub of the communications industry in Ireland and yet nobody knew they were living in their house. So newspapers could come in and say ‘this shows the contradictions at the heart of the so-called technological age where the more connected we are the more disconnected we really are. My feeling was that those answers legitimate and useful as they might be in journalism or legal proceedings, theatre wasn’t there to provide another answer to go ‘us artists know the truth blah blah blah’ I think what theatre can do, which is very little, it’s almost pointless, but it’s still there is to return the audience to the moment before the explanations come in. The moment of horror, the moment of impact of these events, the moment that comprehended as inexplicable and you try to find your way in to this moment of silence the meaninglessness of these kind of events and of death. You try to look at that before explanations or meaning rushes in. That’s what theatre is about that grey area.
You’ve said the play examines meaninglessness. Can you expand on that a little?
The difficulty with all this language is that it can become quite pretentious quite quickly. The problem is the words sound a bit like somebody doing their PhD thesis when in theatre you’re not looking to turn it into an intellectual event; you’re looking to investigate meaninglessness on an interesting and emotional level. For me it’s about the devastation of the impact of a story like this. When you open your paper in the morning and you read that this happened, without putting it into words you think something like; “oh my god, why is the world so shit?” This primal, childlike instinct, before you try to intellectualise and put it into meaningful context, I think has validity and has an awe in the sense of a mystery that we don’t know that is worth reflecting on and investigating. It becomes a respectful gesture towards, in this case, these women and their deaths because you’re then orchestrating a wake and bringing everybody to a memorial towards the moment of silence where you’re not there looking for the meaning and rather you’re respecting the meaninglessness. These kind of thoughts are what we’re looking to evoke and investigate.
You’ve compared the play to a wake can you elaborate on that idea?
I guess the key to theatre is being there and everybody is there, not just the audience, but the actors and the performers. But it’s different from other media and other artforms in that way that everybody is there in the space. So that sort of being present is like the event of a wake where the body is laid out in home and people gather and are just there with the body. Although sometimes there might be drinking or socialising happening around the body as if they’re still present so just before you go to a church service and the eulogies it’s just like being there and paying homage to the life that you’re gathered to celebrate and mourn. That’s what we mean by the image of the Irish wake, you don’t need words. Again this is no contempt for any explanation or investigation, but it about finding a space for presence where you’re just there.
You said earlier that there were letters from one of the women found. How much did you draw on them to frame the play?
I read them extensively again as they were reported in the public domain. We didn’t use them as a framing device as such. They seemed to come from one of the women, Brigit Ruth and we can only speculate as to the impulse behind them. There seemed to be many possibilities about why they were written. Obviously the content has a degree of dissent in that some of the letters are her suggesting that they don’t go ahead with the suicide pact or they choose a different route as they are suffering much more than they thought that they would. So maybe they were written because they had to be secret and passed underhand from one sister to another out of the reach of perhaps some matriarchal figure, perhaps one of them was more the leader. The other suggestion is that one of the symptoms of starvation is you lose your voice so maybe this was simply the only alternative she had to communicate to start writing letters. Again because none of those were available to us and it didn’t seem to be the impulse of the way we wanted to mediate on their story is to look for the explanation so again what we did with those letters was present them and then interrupt them. We want to give enough information to the audience so we’re not frustrating the audience, so we’re saying look we can share what the information is, but we would interrupt these letters so she never really gets to speak and again you can see the techniques in the show we use to do that. So we take the focus away instead of the feeling that those letters will reveal the key to this mystery it’s to go no, that’s just a red herring.
There’s humour in the play, which given the subject matter might surprise people. What that something you had in your mind from the start or did the humour develop out of the project?
My feeling about that is twofold, one to do with the story and one to do with forgetting the women and to do with theatre in general. To do with the women it seemed to be another gesture of releasing ourselves or the audience from a feeling that this is what happened. When you think of an event as horrible as that the default tone the jumps to mind is one of deep seriousness, very bleak, probably not sepia, but certainly black and white and a sort of grim, grey Tarkovsky-like seriousness. Whereas who’s to say that these women, who knew each other from childhood and were very close, didn’t, in their delusion, joke or die in fits of laughter so the point of introducing humour is again to problematise our claim on knowing that this is what definitively happened. Again its draws on the ethical question of how do we tell a story that’s not ours. Nobody would every question the sort of Speilberg-esque tragic version of the story, but that is a claim to knowledge which might certainly be true and may instinctively seem to be how it probably played out, but again that’s making a claim that goes above and beyond what we can know. So by introducing humour it draws attention to the ethics of how we tell stories which are not ours. The second point is
The second thing is that in we are coming from the world when meeting a story like this. When you’re reading this story in the newspaper at breakfast who’s to say that the cat doesn’t knock your milk over your lap as you’re reading. We’re not allowed into the story it’s disrupted and all our concentration and all our attempts to engage are disrupted. At funerals funny things happen and it’s just a way of bringing the world in by problematising the tone and keeping it interesting. And that’s more the point of theatre in general and how you tell stories.
As this is a true story dealing with real people, have you had any reaction from friends or relatives of the women?
I heard that they were aware of it. There are a couple of sisters still alive and some close relatives. There was a twofold thing, going into the story I checked out with people who work in the arts, who are writers about the ethics of that and because we felt we were not writing a biopic of these women’s lives from a strictly legal point of view we weren’t going to be subject to libel. My instinct about it is that if a family member came to see the show they would see that the play is a wake for their relatives and a respectful work. I mean I didn’t set out to do that, I set out to follow the idea through, but it is the case that I hope they would connect with it or at least approve.