Broken Croí/Heart Briste

Manchán Magan in 'Broken Croí/Heart Briste'. Photo: Fiona Morgan.

Manchán Magan in 'Broken Croí/Heart Briste'. Photo: Fiona Morgan.

Broken Croí/Heart Briste is a dramatic and linguistic experiment. Written and performed by Manchán Magan, it seeks to investigate the limitations of language as a means of communication and the limitations of the Irish language in contemporary theatrical culture. As the spliced title suggests, the play is written in Irish and English, though a stream of invective neologisms in both languages points towards the instability of language as a system of meaning. As René Magritte scrawled across the bottom of his eponymous landmark postmodern painting 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' (This is not a pipe); language is an arbitrary thing.

Broken Croí/Heart Briste is structured as a Irish-language lesson, and Magan plays a chain-saw-wielding, be-kilted Múinteoir determined to teach a mute audience cúpla focail. Unable to find a volunteer, he plucks a surly teenager from the audience; a young cailín (Eva O'Connor) with a short-skirted uniform and a full bottom lip. As she turns his efforts into a language game, a whole new perspective on the Irish language emerges - one that is fresh, contemporary and, almost, dare I say it, cool. Cailín can pun any familiar word into a curse (did you know the verb to teach in Irish - múin - is the same word as piss?), while there is true innovation in adopting the Valley Girl drawl of contemporary Irish teenagers into Gaeilge. Cad-ever and dárirír-iously are just two to keep on file.

However, Cailín's linguistic tricks also have deeper meaning, moving the play from mere language game into emotional exploration. As the real nature of the relationship between teacher and pupil is revealed (father-daughter/athair-iníon) the play becomes a meditation on language's limits. Mis-communication, indeed a desire not to communicate at all, is at its core; language obfuscates as much as it reveals. This theme is poignantly reinforced by Cailín's dance, a transcendent moment in which, to quote Brian Friel in Dancing at Lughnasa, "language is no longer necessary." (It would be to overstate the intellectual weight of Broken Croí/Heart Briste to suggest that first-time playwright Magan is of the same calibre as Friel, but the themes of the play also evoke parallels with Translations).

There are some core problems with the production, despite the fact that this is Broken Croí/Heart Briste's second outing (it premiered at the Dublin Fringe Festival in September 2009). Magan is not an actor, and while his awkwardness can be written into the subtext of his character, in the post-dramatic moments forced into the dramatic structure (the requisite greeting of the audience before the show, the gestures towards audience inclusion) he is visibly uncomfortable; if you invoke audience response you need to be prepared to improvise and Magan does not seem confident enough to manouevre beyond the script. The use of translation tools on powerpoint display is also inconsistent, and trails off. The end too is abrupt and unsatisfactory: at 45-minutes long the play impressively does feel like a complete entity, but having interpolated so many fussy post-modern elements into the performance, the stylistic interventions never quite pay off for the audience.

All that said, Broken Croí/Heart Briste is probably the most accessible and interesting Irish language play since Máire Ní Ghráda's 1963 play An Triail. And it is accessible to a non-Irish-speaking audience, as the positive feedback from the American audience members at a post-show discussion on the first night testified. Most importantly, it is also accessible to teenagers, as my two teenage guests confirmed. Indeed, considering that - for better or worse - it is through the education system that the Irish language finds its dominant home, Broken Croí/Heart Briste is even more important than the sum of its sometimes slight parts might suggest it to be. A Leaving Cert curriculum - indeed a whole generation - might be inspired if they had access to material as relevant as this.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Broken Croí/Heart Briste by Manchán Magan

15 - 20 March, 2010

Produced by Project Arts Centre and Foras Na Gaeilge
In Project Arts Centre

Directed by Tom Creed

Lighting design: Sarah Jane Shiels

Set design: Deirdre Dwyer

With: Manchán Magan, Eva O'Connor