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  • Chris O'Rourke

Galway International Arts Festival 2023: Not A Word

Not A Word by Brú Theatre. Image by Amie Dicke


Despite being regularly pronounced dead, language seems impossible to kill. Take Brú Theatre’s extraordinary Not A Word. A production performed without words, for the most part, the title’s malleability might well have said all that words needed to say. Not a word about home. Not a word from home. Not a word about how tough it is away from home. Nor a word about those countless souls who disappeared into the dusty diaspora of the twentieth century. Builders, miners, manual labourers who resided in twilight bedsits, shadowed in exhaustion, covered in concrete grey dust. Their pained limbs and aching joints locked in endless discomfort. Nights alone spent cheating at solitaire. Tunes from back home played on scratched LP’s inspiring longing, loneliness, pleading waves towards half known strangers through the prison of a window. The loaf of bread releasing an aroma of memories slathered with hopes of a return. But would they recognise the grey, gargoyled face buried beneath its mask of cement?

If there is much going on in Not A Word, it’s all rendered to near perfection. Orla Clogher’s extraordinary mask and Saileóg O’Halloran’s detailed costume capturing the unknown immigrant's harsh experiences. Andrew Clancy’s pitch perfect set as much prison cell as bedsit, in which the weighed down present of rent and coins for the gas meter is haunted by the grass green past. Embodied in Sarah Jane Shiels shadowed lights, bursting with the freshness of lavender as memories soar, before crashing into the dark. Jenny O’Malley’s sound design an industrial backtrack of passing cars heightening longing and loneliness. Vividly brought alive by Ultan O’Brien’s extraordinary fiddle playing. O’Brien playing live throughout, accentuating mood and memory, reaching beyond easy nostalgia or a maudlin Disneyfication of Irish immigration. Here, heart and soul are made to sing and keen. The whole perfectly balanced under the inspired direction of James Riordan.

Raymond Keane in Not A Word by Brú Theatre. Image by Jess Harkin

One could cite multiple influences from kabuki to clowning, mime to mask work, which inform Not A Word. But the simplest description lies in two words: Raymond Keane. Over many years Keane has evolved a signature, physical practice defined by understated eloquence. A less is more, seemingly effortless effort in which movement is made powerful through simplicity. No heavy exaggerations or easy tropes, but rather articulations of the heart given direct physical expression. Engaging the audience by coaxing them into investigating that space between the stated and the imagined. A space defined by Keane with extraordinary sensitivity.

One actor, one musician. Both extraordinarily mesmerising. Not all will gravitate towards Not A Word’s slow, methodical pacing. Its comfort with silence. Its simple tale told simply and beautifully. But questions of taste have nothing to do with whether a work succeeds, artistically and theatrically, in terms of the standards it set for itself. In this regard, Not A Word is an artistic and theatrical triumph. In which language again proves hard to kill, resurfacing at the end like an embarrassed child. Sounding inelegant and immature next to Keane’s physical vocabulary, the words not rich enough to hold their own when speaking of exile. Yet what of those exiled at home by the doomed clanging of the Angelus bell? The poverty of worn souls and worn out soles and the multitude of shames visited on those unable to leave? Crippling those who couldn’t escape, motivating those who could, imprisoning those who wanted to return? It’s all there in Not A Word. Along with much, much more. A remarkable piece of theatre.

Not A Word produced by Brú Theatre, devised by the company, runs at Galway International Arts Festival until July 22.

For more information visit Galway International Arts Festival


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