Musings in Intermissions

Chris McCormack, 27th February 2014

My review of CARE coming up just as soon as the doctor and nurse go have a little chat …

As a company who have become skilled in making theatre about specific communities, WillFredd have always felt true to their documentary sources while at the same time allowing for humour and playfulness of form. So when director Sophie Motley and designer Sarah Jane Shiels walked into the St Francis Hospice in Raheny over a year ago, you’d wonder if a performance about employees who care for patients in their final stages of illness could carry the same cheer?

From an opening scene where staff deal playing cards that in turn deal out placements for patients’ beds it seems that frolics are still in play. Tactless perhaps but it signals a sincere portrayal of palliative care and its mixing of medicine and mirth.

Blue curtains are stripped back to reveal nurses and doctors collecting the medical history of a new patient, Anne, represented by a mannequin gleaming under Sarah Jane Shiels’ pearlescent lighting.

It’s a fine line between light and dark, and Motley has a cast to tread it expertly. Eleanor Methven intelligently spells out medical diagnoses as a doctor and later she comically voices disdain at the mention of a hospice (“I’d rather iron my own legs!”). Similarly, Sonya Kelly’s undercutting wit eventually gives way to a gentle monologue describing the scene of a client’s last breath.

A combination of scenes reveal attitudes towards hospices as depressed and death-obsessed environments. However, when the staff rush to a patient’s request to hear an Elvis song, with Shane O’Reilly belting out the refrain “This time the girl is gonna stay” and the rest of the cast providing dazzling support, the truth appears to be that people work determinedly to raise patients’ spirits. Illness does not prevent the fulfilment of lives.

There are many tools on display. Composer Jack Cawley’s welling arrangements pace the production softly. O’Reilly’s physical vocabulary traces the steps of rehabilitation in a movement with musician Seán Mac Erlaine, whose wind instruments hum a low melody.

It’s where reality intrudes that WillFredd’s theatre is extraordinary, and in CARE the circumstances are particularly emotional. O’Reilly interrupts a scene by pounding furiously against the wall, creating a sense of the utter uncontrollable, of lives spinning out of control. And only Motley could so discreetly transform the clicking of a doctor’s pen into a fading heartbeat.

It all ends with a reversion to the ordinariness of the workplace, of a place that has to continue when lights are extinguished. But from WillFredd’s glowing production about decline we’ll remember that care is at hand, magnifying lives and their brimming inspiration, even when surrounded by shadows.