All Hardest of Woman
National Maternity Hospital
Episode 14 of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is set in the basement of Holles Street hospital, where Mina Purefoy is in her third day of labour with her 12th child. We do not witness the delivery or the moment of the baby’s birth. Instead we hear the voices of men — her husband, neighbours, doctors — as they philosophise about the wonder of creation.
All Hardest of Woman is an oblique response to Joyce’s work from Louise Lowe’s Anu Productions, created in collaboration with the writer Emilie Pine and the staff and patients of the hospital as part of the Ulysses 2.2 project. Labouring women are also kept offstage here, where the focus is on the hospital (formally, the National Maternity Hospital) as a site of grief rather than gestation, a place of death as well as birth, a place where the full cycle of life and an awareness of its fragility are ever present.
A hopeful father-to-be awaits news of his wife. The atmosphere is taut and the outcome seems inevitable, expectant not of celebration but of mourning
For one team of the small audience, which is split in two at the start of the production, the journey begins and ends in a lane that runs alongside the hospital, where an obstetric doctor (Alex O’Neill) is trying to come to terms with the human consequences of a difficult day. We follow him inside to a waiting room in the closed maternity clinic, where a hopeful father-to-be (Robbie O’Connor) awaits news of his wife. The atmosphere is taut and the outcome seems inevitable, expectant not of celebration but of mourning. A young woman (Etta Fusi) enters, also seeking a doctor who will answer her questions. Instead she finds a cleaner (Úna Kavanagh), haunting the rooms with her floor polisher and her own history of infertility.
The language of communication in the 50-minute piece is, aptly, physical rather than verbal. Indeed, much of what is said by the busy doctors and midwives who pass through the space en route to elsewhere is inaudible, providing an emotional murmur of sympathy and empathy rather than any clear narrative. The cramped space of the hospital is a challenge for the audience, which might have to strain to see parts of some of the scenes, but it becomes an inspiration for the performers. O’Neill and Matthew Williamson’s porter, for example, use the thresholds in particular to offer resistance and support to their work-racked bodies.
It is the moments of silence — the silence of no news, no heartbeat, no answers — that weigh most heavily
For the most part, Lowe’s production relies on the site’s own semiology: flickering fluorescent strip lights, night-muted machines and empty corridors carry their own haunting significance. Carl Kennedy’s sound design weaves in the ambient noise of monitors and machines for an effective sonic complement, but it is the moments of silence — the silence of no news, no heartbeat, no answers — that weigh most heavily in this troubling meditation on what Joyce called “a woman’s woe in the travail they have of motherhood”.
Runs until October 22 as part of Dublin Theatre Festival