2011 Christchurch Earthquake, David Heap, Edinburgh Fringe, Figure 8 Productions / Scary Biscuits Promotions, Immigration, Irish Immigration, Julie Sharkey, Liz Fitzgibbon, New Zealand, Orla Murphy, Orla Murphy’s “Remember to Breathe.”, Summerhall, Theatre Review
[The following contains spoilers.]
I am at the Summerhall this afternoon and half of London seems to be here as well. Everybody is English, almost gratuitously English, and the English segment of our multicultural whole is here manifested as paying significantly higher ticket prices and drinking only the ponciest of gins. The crush, and the loyalty to bourgeois power, for a moment brings a vivid picture to my mind: the US Embassy in Saigon in 1975 and a single, isolated social class swarming together like cockroaches beneath the helicopters. There is invariably the same vibe at the Summerhall.
The Dissection Room waits around a couple of corners from the patio bar. It is an atmospheric venue, with lots of dents in it, perhaps a bit too raw and awkward to be ever properly gentrified. I was initially uncomfortable: for the first ten or so minutes of Orla Murphy’s “Remember to Breathe,” the actors’ words were lost in their own echoes. I don’t know whether the performers eventually connected with the room’s acoustics or whether my own hearing eventually adjusted.
“Remember to Breathe” is so fresh a play that you might have to afterwards jolt your memory to realise that Maeve (Liz Fitzgibbon), the heroine, is actually a thoroughly archetypal figure: the same Irish emigrant who has faithfully populated every frontier since the dawn of modernity. Her story is partly set in New Zealand after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Fitzgibbon is a strong performer, who could no doubt make a success of this show as a monologue, but the supporting cast come with extra power and they are also deployed with a shrewd pickiness. The resulting play is tunefully balanced and nuanced.
Yet what does it all mean? When Maeve was a child, she had almost drowned in a river and her father (David Heap) had saved her life. She appears to have drawn the wrong lesson from her disaster, for, once back on the riverbank, she had made a somewhat bizarre promise to herself to never learn to swim. We join her in her new life in New Zealand, where she is “breaking” this spurious vow. She has left her father’s country, rejected his money and his advice, and this new freedom will come to strangely correspond with his own drowning, in the same river from which he had originally saved her.
Learning to swim, as a metaphor for achieving freedom, is admittedly cheesy, but is such offensive symbolism really a sincere feature of this story? The play gets trapped in an eddy, swirling this metaphor round and round. It might help to just go with the flow, rather than pressing on intellectually.
We might be inclined to share Maeve’s mournful interpretation of her own story – for one thing, she is literally dressed in it. She always wears a swimming costume beneath her dress, like a hair shirt, and this presumably symbolises the constancy of her promise. Later, after scattering her father’s ashes, she absent-mindedly prints two ashy handprints across the front of her dress, symbolising his clutches. Nonetheless, he is the one who has failed. He is charming and twinkly-eyed and he bathes in the riches of Irish lyricism, but he had never adapted, he had never emigrated, and he had never learned to swim. His watery life drags him down.
By contrast, Doreen (Julie Sharkey), Maeve’s swimming instructor, has overcome her fear of swimming and she is lately a “swimaholic.” This character is ostensibly a bit-player, chucked into the play for a few laughs, but she is actually the most buoyant material to hand. Doreen is part bimbo and part guru, pleasantly foolish but ultimately wise. She is the newly minted mother who will replace Maeve’s sunken father.
So yes, the metaphor functions and the fact that it does so without really jarring underscores the skill of this production. Although there are bitter tears and flashes of rage, there is surprisingly, even awesomely little drama to “Remember to Breathe.” The father’s easygoing, everyday friendliness is almost transcendental. In locating the affectionate relationship between a father and a daughter in its midst, this play secures a prime patch of realism, a garden for the beautiful and the bittersweet.