Pick a thing, any thing, anything at all.
Play with it, stay with it, have yourself a ball.
Perfect: universal, troublesome, comic, and oddly inspiring of music and dance.
The theatrical poem, Mice Will Play, opens in the dark, with the sound of hammed-up scuttling: human feet shuffling across the stage floor. Laughs from the audience. Lights up: two humans in work aprons wearing huge mouse heads of moulded plastic stike a pose. More laughs. This is comedy through and through, and gives plenty of laughs throughout.
When the head gear comes off, to more laughs, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Nic Gareiss, get, as it were, “out of character” and address the audience directly, setting up a chat-like tone and an intimacy with the audience that allows them to just be (almost) themselves for the performance. (Breaking down the barriers further, and adding to the light-heartedness even before the play begins, it is their voices delivering the house announcements on the PA system, Gareiss in English, Ó Raghallaigh as Gaeilge.)
The conversational register, which one would expect in links between tunes in a music gig but not in a traditional play, worked very well for both ‘actors’, almost entirely erasing the tension and self-consciousness one might have expected from non-actors. (It works particularly well for Ó Raghallaigh who has since been nominated for a Best Male Performer award in the Fringe.)
While the piece starts loosely with impressions of and personal stories about mice that they have recorded from friends and family, a structure is established through a few main dramatised ‘parts’. One is about mice in scientific research – in which ‘Caoimhín’ becomes the mice-breeding corporation and ‘Nic’ is the customer trying to find out which type of research mouse to buy and how much it’ll cost. Another is where ‘Caoimhín’ and ‘Nic’ reminisce about their (fictional) school days in Lacken and a dead-mouse trick they played on a dislikeable sweet shop keeper.
The longest section, towards the end of the performance, though, is given over to dance and music, and is thereby more abstract. It also provides a more sombre and profound aspect to the performance. It centres around a pile of ground coffee that ‘Nic’ pours out of a tea pot onto the stage and then takes handfuls of to sprinkle around, while all the time keeping up a tap rhythm. The ground-coffee ‘drawing’ turns out to be a maze through which ‘Nic’ is then led, and ultimately, trapped, by the ‘pied fiddler’.
Although the drawing takes time (‘Caoimhín’ is meanwhile setting all the mousetraps that will catch ‘Nic’) and would, I think, benefit from some film projection of the process and the dance onto a screen, or something, it is central to the performance. ‘Nic’ dances through it all, and after a few minutes it is easy to take for granted what he is doing and to miss the physical effort involved. But when you notice the sweat he builds up, you are reminded that though the whole thing might seem quite effortless and casually put together, it is actually hiding an awful lot of ‘work’ (or ‘play’ I think they’d prefer to call it) and artistry that goes on underneath, and went on beforehand behind the scenes.
The other part of the expression from which the title derives is, of course, When the cat’s away, and yet there is no mention of the cat in the whole performance. Intentionally, I think. So, who is the cat? I think it’s whatever we, the audience, may have had to escape from to be there and have left outside to be charmed. Catipalism, perhaps! A show like Mice Will Play only comes about when you let the imagination off to play and that is hard when you are worried about where the next euro is going to come from and how the next bill is going to be paid. Mice Will Play is a celebration of what happens when we stop worrying and start having fun together, a validation of artists for taking risks and playing hard … for, sometimes, very little return.
Evidence of what happens when you take the time to do so can be seen in all aspects of this ‘play’: the really clever connections made between different elements, motifs and parts of the production; the playful interplay between and splicing of live and recorded material; the balance between humour, anecdote and profundity; the lighting, set, and props which give a great atmosphere to the piece, casting a sensual charm over the proceedings and assisting visually the verbal and musical elements.