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life and death on stage

'He was in hospital on Monday - by Friday, he was dead'

A son and mother have made a unique play where they discuss the death of the man closest to them.
He was shy, very hard working, quite sensitive, wouldn’t like anybody to know that. A very loyal friend, and quite good fun. Had different sayings and he’d say things and he’d have this deadpan face and you’d think is he serious? He’d always do it with Feidhlim’s friends.

QuaternaireParis / YouTube

WE DON’T LIKE to talk about death in Ireland. It’s understandable – who wants to talk about a difficult and emotional topic?

Thinking about your own death is one thing. But when it comes to the death of someone in your own family, it can be even harder to discuss it publicly. It can be too raw, and too much to bear. But at the same time, talking can help with the grief process – it won’t make it disappear, but it means that pent-up feelings can be shared.

A Dublin mother and son have teamed up to show the power of talking about grief with an unusual play called Have I No Mouth, where they discuss the death of their respective husband and father – a death that could have been prevented – in the most intimate of fashions.

Theatremaker Feidhlim Cannon and his mum Anne have created the play to celebrate the life of his father and her husband, Sean, whose untimely death occurred when he was just 49. To make matters all the more interesting, they’re joined onstage by a professional psychotherapist, Erich Keller.

They told how the whole thing came together, and how it has changed their lives.

Connecting with memory

The play emerged a few years after the family went through a protracted litigation over Sean’s death. For Feidhlim, it was a natural thing to want to make theatre about his own life, but his father’s passing was something that took him a while to touch as a subject.

“It was a next attempt for me to contact with my father’s memory,” said Feidhlim, who after the death had made some attempt to interrogate it, using art and getting tattoos.

“I kind of always threatened to make a piece about my dad or a piece about our family, but years went by and that didn’t happen.” It was only when his Brokentalkers partner Gary Keegan suggested the idea to him that he got thinking about exploring his dad’s death on stage.

And even then, it wasn’t until a Christmas holiday – and a drunken night – that Feidhlim decided to broach the subject with his mother.

“First thing I said was if we do make this piece, I don’t want to make a sentimental piece of work,” he had told Keegan. “It needs to be very honest, authentic, an investigation into my family, into my dad’s death. And I felt the only way I could really achieve that was to work alongside my mother.”

The next step was to convince Anne to come on board. “I got very drunk at Christmas Eve, my mam doesn’t drink, she might have had a sherry, and I drunkenly blurted out ‘do you want to make a piece of work about dad?’,” recalled Feidhlim.

His mother, though not someone who had been involved in theatre before, said yes – with a bit of trepidation. What piqued her interest was that her son mentioned the word ‘healing’ while explaining what it would involve – and healing was what she felt the family needed.

“What I didn’t realise was he wanted me on stage,” said Anne. “That wouldn’t be me. And when he mentioned about Eric coming in, he said about a psychotherapist, I immediately went I don’t know, I need to meet him.”

I know to some people it’s off the wall but I knew I could trust both Gary and Feidhlim with this.

The involvement of a psychotherapist wasn’t something planned from the start. Feidhlim initially asked Eric Keller in to work as a consultant for early workshops on the play. The mum and son would swap stories during the workshops about Sean.

“I was hearing things about my dad that I never knew,” said Feidhlim. “You very rarely see your parents as teenagers in love, you see them as mam and dad.”

Keller’s presence “brought something really different into the room and we felt that having Eric in the piece was something that we should really investigate”.

It’s a very strange, experimental therapy session.

The show has a loose structure – though Anne jokes that Feidhlim often changes things – “sometimes he’s quite cheeky let’s put it that way”.

“Anne’s not an actress and what I’m interested in is that buffer,” says Feidhlim. “When my mother does react to me.”

There’s no script, but there are specific points plotted out in advance.

2 Brokentalkers _Photo by Ilan Bachrach

“When I met Eric I felt immediately ‘oh yeah’. There was a safety with him being there as well as a therapist. It actually became a therapy session. So it was a natural thing to have him on stage,” explained Anne.

The play helps her also to see if there are things she still needs to think about when it comes to her grief. “It can maybe set off an emotional thing in me, or a memory in me and I have to kind of think I need to look at that, this is something that I need to work on,” she said.

The play has toured worldwide, and Anne has been struck by the numbers of people waiting outside “to talk to you and tell you a little bit about their story, and how by coming you have started some kind of a healing for them”.

When I hear that I say that, that’s why it’s important to do it,” she said proudly.

A tragic death and a full life

Sean died at the age of just 49, He was a stonemason, who “worked very hard” and was never sick, said Anne.

He came in from work one evening and complained that his legs were feeling funny. “He went to bed, which was unusual,” recalled Anne. “I went up and I said ‘are you alright?’ and he said ‘ah, I’ll be fine in the morning’. And the next morning when he woke up, something he would never have done, he said ‘I don’t think I’ll go into work this morning’. Now that was unheard of.”

By Monday, he was still unwell, with continuing numbness in the tips of his fingers and legs, and his doctor advised him to go to hospital.

So on Tuesday he went to Beaumont, on Thursday they operated, they diagnosed a prolapsed disc in his neck, they operated on a Thursday and on Friday morning he was dead.

The family had felt there was something else going on beyond a prolapsed disc – and it subsequently emerged Sean had Guillan-Barré syndrome. With this rare disorder, the body’s immune system attacks part of the nervous system, which can lead to weakness, numbness and tingling situations.

The situation subsequently ended in litigation.

“It’s very hard to get your head around,” said Anne of her husband’s death. “He was this very tall, healthy man, and within a week [he had died]. It was very hard, and it’s still hard.”

Despite the difficulties of litigation, Anne pursued it so that other families didn’t have to go through something similar.

“My whole thing was if this happened to somebody else, I would never be able to live with that,” said Anne.

Gary Keegan and Feidlim Canon of Broken Talkers Pic Darragh Kane Gary Keegan and Feidlim Canon of Broken Talkers Darragh Kane Darragh Kane

Feidhlim is proud of how his mother dealt with the situation. “Luckily I have a very strong mother who fought for eight years, and without that fight, you know I don’t know where we’d be,” he said.

“I think the show itself… it is a celebration of a family, it’s a celebration of our relationship, it’s a very celebratory piece but it’s a very dark piece of work that goes to those very traumatic places.”

Remembering Sean

The family don’t shy away from difficult parts of their life – they also discuss the death of Anne and Sean’s third child, baby Sean, who died 15 hours after his birth. He was born when Feidhlim was six years old.

“We had said at the beginning that because it was part of our lives, that he would be mentioned because he is a very big part of our lives,” said Anne. “His life, even though it was only 15 hours, his life was as big as Sean’s which was 49 years.”

Feidhlim and his brother Padriac were raised to remember baby Sean, and would visit his grave on birthdays, Christmas, and other special days.

Making the play enabled the mother and son to see coincidences occurring throughout their lives.

“When my baby brother Sean died, my mother was holding him and it was snowing. It was 1981,” said Feidhlim. “And when I got a phone call to tell me my dad was dead I was in London, I was in university, and after the phone call I sat down and I looked out the window and it was snowing. These little coincidental events shape the show.”

That gave us license to really investigate both their deaths and both Seans are symbolically on stage through Eric the therapist – he becomes my dad, and there’s a doll on the stage that represents baby Sean. So there’s objects on the stage that represent them, and again they’re not sentimentally used objects.

So where did the name Have I No Mouth come from? Not, as I suspected, the lack of a voice due to death or grief. In fact, it has a lighter meaning.

“If the boys were eating sweets, and they hadn’t offered sweets, [Sean] would say ‘Have I no mouth?’,” smiled Anne.

It can’t be easy for them both to take part in this piece. “I think for both of us, it’s a very difficult piece of work to do – and it’s not enjoyable,” said Feidhlim. “What is enjoyable is hanging out with my mother, and Eric and Gary, and you know those things are great, when we come back together. So we’d be very lucky that we’ve literally travelled the world with this piece, so we’ve got to hang out a lot. So that’s brilliant.”

For me, the piece isn’t about my dad and my brother. To me the piece is really about me and my mother because that’s the living relationship, that’s the tangible thing that’s on stage. So to me it’s more about that. It’s also for me… I’ve got no video footage of my dad, it was just before phones were starting to come out, camera phones and stuff, so it’s mostly photographs and memory [are] what I have left about my dad.

The tragedy of it all was that Anne and her husband had got to the stage where their sons were grown, and, said Anne, “would have probably been finding time for ourselves”.

“So that was lost. I had to be very careful. And I think baby Sean’s death in hindsight taught me so much because I had to make sure that I didn’t put cotton wool around them when he died, and let them do things, or I would have smothered them,” she said.

For her, the joy in the play is “to be able to spend time with Feidhlim and not feel that I’m holding him back”.

It’s also given Anne a new element to her life that she never anticipated.

“It’s a completely different world for me, it’s not something I thought I would ever be involved in,” she said. “And I really feel honoured to be part of that. For me the piece is definitely the mother and son relationship, and for me also what it did was it’s helped my other son to start the grieving process when he watched the show.”

Sean died just as his relationship with his son was evolving into one of two adults. ”He was a great dad, and I miss him dearly,” said Feidhlim. “The sad thing is those next things in your life that he’s not around for are still difficult.”

As for what his mother gets out of the play, she says it is the realisation that “it’s the memories that are so important. As long as we hold those memories, people never die.”

Have I No Mouth opens at the Pavilion Theatre on Wednesday 19 April. It goes on to Belltable Limerick (21 April), Town Hall Theatre Galway (25 April), Lyric Theatre Belfast (27 April), The Everyman Cork (2 and 3 May), Project Arts Centre Dublin (5 and 6 May) and Mermaid Arts Centre Bray (12 May).

Read: ‘It’s exhausting because everything you do… he’s always there’: The first Christmas without a brother>

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