In Fintan O’Toole’s perceptive article in last Saturday's Irish Times, he says of David McWilliam’s Outsiders, currently showing at the Peacock, “But it doesn’t feel like a piece of theatre, and it forces you to ask why not." Likewise FML raised questions about its own value as theatre and, for this reviewer, was found lacking.
FML (Fuck My Life) is one of the headline events of this year's Cork Midsummer Festival and is the culmination of over a year of co-production involving the festival, CAMPO Gent, LIFT, Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s and the Everyman Palace Theatre, Cork. At the heart of the project is a cast of fifteen young people from Cork, who devised the show with Belgian director Pol Heyvaert.
The project has involved a huge investment of time and its run at the Midsummer Festival is also the launch of an international tour. Since its inception, FML has had a significant web presence and following, a campaign which deliberately and successfully courted a young audience – an audience frequently ignored by theatre makers. FML is about teenage life, and in particular it is about teenage suicide. It deals with its subject responsibly, working in consultation with the National Suicide Research Foundation and suggesting further information sources for those affected. So far, so good.
The fifteen real live teenagers on stage each has their moment during what was less a piece of theatre than a presentation. Structured as a long series of introductions, monologues and occasional dialogues, the voices of the actors appear fairly genuine and for the most part they turn in truthful performances. It is, I suspect, largely their own material – selected and positioned within the piece perhaps, but not undergoing the significant transformation which would make it theatrical. In fact, though Bart Capelle is creditied as dramaturg, I struggled to see a dramaturgical hand at work. There are certainly some wonderful moments – the actors succeed in a refreshing self-deprecation amid the angst. Callum Burke-O'Driscoll is delightful, as is Charlie Crowley's logical deconstruction of the game 'Rock, Paper, Scissors' (the actors use their real names in the show). But to me, these wonderful moments were no more than in any youth theatre show – the simple accession of a young and inexperienced actor to a moment of truly impressive performance. Where was the theatrical imagination that should be expected from a project with this level of investment?
The piece was relentlessly linear – in its staging and in its structure. The projection screen which dominated the stage was mainly used to simply enlarge what was already taking place on the stage. Its occasional use to expand or resonate with the live material – awkward clips of parents, a karaoke backdrop - was a reminder of what could have been: the cast and audience are so-called digital natives, after all, and are used to imaginative, multilayered and innovative use of media. The actors only rarely breached the straight line of microphone stands (used merely to amplify) which divided their line of chairs and stools from the audience. And as one after another of the young performers came forward to the microphone to have their moment, there was a sense of inevitability as I counted those who remained. Even the characters seemed to be reduced to a linear and two-dimensional version of themselves. There was "the happy one", "the logical one", "the arrogant one", with scant reference to the complexity of their lives and little or no meaningful interaction. Though the simple set, lighting and sound design competently served the overall shape, they did not significantly enhance it.
While Fintan O'Toole talks of the transformative potential of theatre to make the familiar strange (as opposed to a lecture, for example, which makes the strange familiar), FML merely made the familiar familiar. In doing so, it must be said, FML did entertain much of its audience. How much more exciting, though, once you have enticed young people into this strange place – as actors or as audience – to inspire them with something truly theatrically imaginative.
I was reminded of Once and for all we're going to tell you who we really are so shut up and listen, presented at last year's Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, saw a similar number of equally authentic young people presented their take on teenage life. Their energy and exhuberance, combined with a confident theatrical vision, blazed across the stage and forged persistant images of joy, horror, rage and delight. Where both shows danced the line between documentary and theatre, the cast of FML, in my opinion, was not enabled by the director or the dramaturg to imaginatively transcend their material.
Is it too much to ask that a theatre performance headlining a festival harness the power of theatre to transform, not merely to tell?
Síle Ní Bhroin is Associate Director of Graffiti Theatre Company, Cork. She has worked in Ireland and the Czech Republic as a theatre maker and teacher.