Tristan & Isolde meets Isaac Asimov in Dave Duggan's dystopian play
"It's only chaos out there."
So speaks a confused looking girl in bleak surroundings that match the stiltedness of her speech. These are the words of Makaronik, portrayed superbly by Liz Fitzgibbon in Dave Duggan's equally superb play of the same name. Inspired by the words of George Orwell's 1984, the themes of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and the tone of the legendary tale of Tristan & Isolde, the power of Duggan's pen has passed from page to stage to create a multi-lingual, theatrical experience like few others of recent times.
Set in a degraded data centre, a refuge amidst the virtually insane backdrop of 2084 Belfast, Makaronik depicts a tale of two visitors to the title character: Diarmuid (Cillian O'Gairbhí) and Gráinne (Mary Conroy). Named in a reference to the love triangle between two identically named characters in a mythological Irish prose narrative, the obstacles this Tristan and Isolde face are more than just about love.
Diarmuid and Gráinne are officers in an Imperial Empire where language after language has been outlawed. Languages are seen as “threats to the Empire” at a time where Belfast is not a communal city but a soulless unit. It's a scenario as twisted as macaroni (naturally): individual identities ignored for the sake of replication in the form of neutered "drones". Makaronik is one of these, the last of her kind, assigned to take care of things until Diarmuid and Gráinne arrive to take every last shred of data, and Makaronik herself, back to the centre of the Empire.
Aspects of Irish, English and even Latin merge into the one language that can possibly be spoken in this wreckage: Empirish, a hodgepodge of gibberish as oppressive and restrictive as the setting. Restrictive not by way of communication, but by way of expression. To Makaronik, the data in the centre is her means of "breaking free" - Shakespeare, National Anthems and all other kinds of theatre, literature and music have seen her transcend the boundaries of any drone and emerge as an emotive, educated human being.
Deciding what to do about Makaronik is a problem for Gráinne and Diarmuid, who, while getting by solely on scraps of knowledge picked up from elsewhere, are also fearing for their own safety while pondering if they will ever be allowed to be together, as Tristan and Isolde never were. To Gráinne, completion of their duty will lead them to safety at the centre of the Empire. To Diarmuid, it seems apparent that this little centre will see them enjoy the only true companionship they will ever get. They feel stranded, yet safe. It is an abstract, serious yet passionately intricate situation, made decipherable to the audience by firstly, the acting, and secondly, by twin on stage screens that subtitle the on-going affairs of the three characters.
But nothing fascinates more in Makaronik, at least in my view, than the title character. It's impossible to ignore her android like tendencies: like any Asimov prototype, or, more famously, Star Trek's Data, she appears to absorb every fact that she is exposed to. There is also a servile slant to her character in that, when Gráinne later makes a decision to remain at the data centre, she is confident that Makaronik will look after her: meaning that Makaronik shows no ill will towards the two officers. In that respect her behaviour is more human than that of her colder, more methodical guardians. Quite probably, both Diarmuid's and Grainne's moods have been deadened as much by the feelings they are not allowed to feel as by Makaronik. Her uniqueness drives a wedge between them: she is like a star child, one who can protect and must be protected.
And when Makaronik bursts into tears at the thought of leaving her centre, her superficially robotic facade is shattered and the heart of the play emerges in this mischievous, knowing, enigmatic soul. She is less Data and more Mrs. Spock without the pointed ears. We are absorbed by her absorbance and her remarkable ability to see the world in a way others do not. She is no android, nor is she an alien: she is just alienated in an alien nation, trapped in an empirical hub that she cannot, and surely we could not, adjust to.