Katherine Murphy, 25th February 2014
A game of poker. Some show tunes. Dismantled mannequins. Plasticince as dinner. These may not seem like the hallmarks of a show about hospices and palliative care, and you would be right. But WillFredd (FOLLOW, FARM) have succeeded once again in using a talented ensemble and their own ingenuity to create a show that is more about the audience than about the actors, more personal than political, and more about those left behind than those left to die.
WillFredd have followed up two successful years with a show that actively seeks to put life on the agenda. The premise is simple: in a hospice the staff go about their day to day work. They make tea and give baths, they pray and they clean, they sing and they dance. They show the audience that is no ‘normal’ day in the life of a hospice worker.
Like an impressionist painting the brushstrokes of brilliance are scattered over a white canvas. Up close they seem scattered and impulsive, but stepping back Sophie Motley’s superb direction creates a picture of a homely place, for staff and patients alike. In using a mannequin as the “patient” she allows the audience to place their own relatives on this faceless body. The musical interludes are uplifting, but self-aware and deprecating. More than anything, the depth and darkness of the humor is deeply profound. In a time when the Abbey is staging Sive in an effort to revive Irishness, WillFredd have discovered a truly Irish voice. This is evident in their discussion of a hospice as a place “for elderly Protestants” and the stark fact that “feeding [patients] up won’t make them better”.
Although Motley maintains an Irish sensibility and sense of humor, there is an awareness of the cruelty within the system they uphold. The opening lines of “How many beds? Two beds” and the game of poker that follows indicate just how much there is at stake during this performance. But also, just how much is at stake on a daily basis in a way that graphs and Irish Times reports never can.
In putting the patient at the center, they skew the focus in order to concentrate on the humanity of those around the them. But it’s not about death; it circles around a human staff that care for the patient, care about them, who care full stop. At first it establishes that the Occupational Therapist, Nurse et al. are defined only by their jobs, and then it shatters this illusion. The ensemble are restrained and animated in equal measure, bringing terrific energy and understanding to each role they play. Eleanor Methven is uncannily credible in her role as the doctor. But Shane O’Reilly gives a performance that spans the entire spectrum of acting ability, from an Elvis-like routine and right back to a considerate nurse.
Sarah Jane Shields’ set is equally drastic, jumping between the clinical white and blue that the audience is so familiar with, while adding splashes of colour with flashing lights. Working in tandem with the set, Sarah Bacon’s costumes are similarly divisive in relation to colour. Emma O’Kane’s choreography creates the most evocative moment of the entire show. Her duet between Shane O’Reilly and Seán Mac Erlaine is visually striking and literally carries the feeling behind the word “care” in every gesture.
In seeing the sheer humanity of the care team, WillFredd have depoliticised palliative care and brought it to an audience who are willing and ready to listen. And if that doesn’t convince you, then the lyrics “Love is a sexually transmitted disease with a 100% mortality rate” should do the trick.