Updated: Mar 8, 2018
Jan 24-28 The Cultch
I'm Not Here, written, directed and designed by Doireann Coady (Theatreclub, Ireland), is about a woman's path to reconciling, and calling to action, the loss of her brother to suicide. It is a ritual. A process. The process is an action that changes her, changes us. This is theatre that acts upon us, it provides a framework to rest in, to allow Coady’s brother, and everyone’s loss, to stay alive. It works or it doesn't work — and even when it's not working it's working because her brother is still not here. These are words that Coady tells us after the show in her talk back, after we witness her take herself and us through a heavily lyrical, cyclical and repetitive sequence whose purpose was laid out and laid bare, but not so bare that we lose ourselves in the tragedy. She is asking us to bring him back with her by doing something about it.
We are given sheets of paper as we walk into the space to take our seats. These sheets say things like, "I thought no one could help but I was wrong", and "Mind each other", and "You can read this as many times as you like to check if it's working". Some give me the sense of the poetics of loss and helplessness, and others are clear instructions of care. It's comforting to have access to both. At the outset, she sets herself up several times to enter into the ritual. She checks the mic. She gets up from her chair while speaking; each time, she says a little more. She lifts her arms up in a didactic way, as if to say, ok fine I'm doing this, here we go. Then she repeats the whole sequence, adding a little more each time.
Coady places herself next to her brother, Donal, at the beginning of the story. He is a chair here. She repetitively tells us what she's going to do this evening — tell some stories, some poems and sing some songs. She asks if it's working. She repeats this cycle several times. She is making herself ready for an event. She’s making us ready for an event. We feel the importance of this event through her voice and breath as she recounts the structure of what she says she is going to do. Coady is taking care.
“Everyone is talking, everyone is shaking”: Coady recounts the moments after family and friends find out that her brother hung himself. The body reacts instinctively to shock, and though immediately the community shares in this physicalized response to grief — shaking — daily life goes on. This desire to be completely with the situation drives Coady to create a piece that can hold her grief long enough to let it cycle through her, and let us be a witness to it, while at the same time avoiding transgressing into victimhood. She expresses herself straightforwardly; it feels possible to reach out, to be present, as we witness her capacity to be present in her body increase as the piece progresses. I am reminded of one of the directives on the sheet of paper: "give people space, but be available".
We rarely hear her describe his qualities, her interpretation of his personality. This soft grasp allows the details to live in our minds fluidly and we get to engage with his memory gently; there is an open door towards sensing our own loss. She does this by giving us moments to connect with our breath. At the beginning, we close our eyes and she narrates us down a path describing the feeling of grass on our hands, feeling the wind on our cheek. I think of moments in my life when time is suspended, and the more Coady uses imagery and song, the more I can touch this sensation. It's a place to feel things more acutely, to drop into the feeling of sand between my toes, the feeling of the air on my right cheek. That immediacy and sharpness is how close the sensation of death and life are.
Coady, and her “priestess”, who in fact is the stage manager, move strategically around the stage — and off and on stage several times. The practicalities of the pattern are a container for words. We get a sense of the container expanding through the lengthening of time between repeating sentences like “he was just starting to get good looking”. Each time she expands the space between these proclamations of her experience of him, the words, though the same, take on heightened volume, a different emphasis, or a different context. The words live inside and are wrung out of the patterns of movement, rather than the movements coming from an embodied space. I feel that the words provide a doorway into being present in what’s arising in her body in terms of shape, speed or relationship to the space around her. They lead her. In this way, the ritual, though performed by bodies in space, reflects the mental gymnastics of wading through the unknown of a suicide death, rather than a purging of emotion through physically sensed grievance. She is asking us to join her in grappling with what to do about it: "what are we going to do?" she asks repeatedly.
Care and structure override sentimentality, even as she reveals what she felt she missed while he was alive. We know this by the stories that place him in time, in space, and in memory — and memory has a way of being patchy and more sensory than linear. She uses nostalgia through her brother’s collection of early 2000 hits, which she plays throughout, in order to take her further into the ritual. Moments are described as sensory fragments of her interactions with him, in fragments of the environment of her interactions with him. She uses her voice to take us into a picture of a memory that is timeless, into her past through our present sensation.
Coady continually places herself next to the chair that is Donal, her brother. She moves the chair around with her. At first, I tired of the idea of her using a chair to personify him, having seen chairs used this way in contemporary performance too many times. It felt too easy. Perhaps it was too easy, but I believe this is besides the point. The moment she addresses the use of the chair, she mentions how people said to her, "oh you can't do that', referring to her hanging the chair up in the air. She punctures any thought we might have of her own naiveté with the subject matter. Her response to the protestations is a route for her to open the dialogue about what is a trick; hanging the chair is just a trick. The backdrop, which she rips down at the end, is just a trick. People saying they don't know what to say about death and suicide is also a trick. She is implying that to disengage from discomfort by saying you don’t know what to say about it is a trick. We know, she proclaims.
People tell her to stop talking about her dead brother. To deny his existence and stop the talking is to live an illusion, but an even bigger illusion is to hold on to when he was physically present. He's not here, but he is here. That is the cycle of grief; to let someone stay alive through you even though it requires the pain of acceptance. She says "I hate you, you ruined my life." Then moments later, "I'm just joking, I Iove you." She allows the alchemical process to ‘work on her'. Is it working?
When the authorities arrive at the scene, they say there's nothing that can be done for him, and Coady brilliantly weaves this into her own deeper question of how we are with the people in our lives. She asks this without getting beyond the point of no return: can we hold space in those tough moments and follow a structure that leads us to feeling complete about an event and its effect on our biology? Where do we stop and reset? And is our reset genuine? Letting go is different than denial. And grief gets ugly here.
I wonder about the process by which we gather information about those we lost. What memories stick for us and why? How do we parse through what we recall of them, especially in the context of the way they died or left?
One song repeats in my mind after the show: “How to disappear completely” by Radiohead — specifically the lines, “I'm not here, this isn't happening”. When we lose someone, when someone dies or leaves or somehow exits our lives, we experience a kind of fracture. On the one hand there is a desire to join with whatever we can about that person. We search for wholeness. On the other hand disbelief takes us out of our body, and in a sense this is what I see Coady do here. She utilizes the ritual and the comfort she has with words to be with her body. She says, at the end while playing a recording of her brother practicing his DJ set, “we know it's working because we want to dance”.
And she dances. She dances feverishly and unsophisticatedly. We see her spinning the chair more aggressively as she turns up the volume on the boombox that plays the recording of her brother practicing his set. We hear him hum and comment. Coady dances. She asks the front row (with the help of the stage manager) to stand in a semi circle as a sort of barrier between her and the rest of the audience. She repeats several times — in reference to the music — that we know it's working if people dance.
A week later it occurs to me that the title — I’m Not Here — is about how grief sits in the body. I get the sense that the shock and mystery of the situation took Coady out of embodiment, due to the pain that the event brought about. The further she committed to the ritual, the more that her 'priestess' stage manager confirmed that it was 'working,' the more she dropped into the physicality, both vocally and bodily, of accepting the unknown of the event. I think about what she said about how people around her continually advised her to move on with her life, that she should stop talking about her dead brother. The performance created a 'safe space', so to speak, for her to complete the cycle, to get increasingly more comfortable in her body to be present with her grief and anger.
Coady gracefully shared how losing someone to suicide invites an unsettling mystery to the process of letting go. She does so briefly, though, in order to keep the door open for the audience to encounter their own relationship to loss. No one is immune to this. Having lost a brother to cancer as an young girl, I found great solace in her invitation to share with her, while she maintained a structure that held her through her personal practice of acceptance. She is inviting sympathy with grace, valuing the pain as information, rather than something to indulge in that acts to retraumatize. Coady takes us just far enough to feel her brother’s continued presence in her life — to this day (she reminds us, “he is dead everyday”) — while also inviting a certain kind of witnessing from us that is her call to action for us to carry on in our own lives.