Even for a company as imaginative as WillFredd Theatre, it would be easy to lose its nerve when dealing with the solemnity of palliative care. The essential work of hospices, treating patients in the final stages of illness, invites an automatic sense of reverence, which would be fatal for a piece of theatre. This astutely judged work defuses it immediately, slyly announcing in its opening moments an approach that is respectful, intelligent and inventive.
As three people sit around a baize-green hospital gurney, a croupier deals out playing cards representing patients (“Home care, medium male”; “Beaumont, low female”) awaiting limited beds.
It might sound callous: playing games with people's lives. Instead, director Sophie Motley and her collaborators are artfully aware that we are exploring a system and the people who deal with it – in short, who cares? By not putting the patient at the centre, that disarming focus allows for a greater and quite challenging insight: it's nothing personal.
This also extends to WillFredd’s methods, an abundance of styles and techniques that form a sophisticated and sometimes restless bricolage, a machinery that still aims for emotional effect. A steady series of sequences introduces us to doctors, nurses, therapists and chaplains, structured around the entrance and exit of a patient named “Anne”, represented only by a mannequin, a family tree and a medical history.
Motley’s is far from a clinical exercise, however. Developed over a year spent in consultation with Irish hospices, it is dense with detail yet engagingly spry in its delivery.
Shane O'Reilly's nurse and Eleanor Methven's doctor deliver differing perspectives on hospice admission procedure while Seán Mac Erlaine and Jack Cawley supply a softly sighing accompaniment on electric and acoustic instruments. O'Reilly later delivers a song about breathlessness and anxiety that becomes a spiralling human case history resolving in RD Laing's maxim, "Life is a sexually transmitted disease with a 100 per cent mortality rate".
Motley and her dramaturg, Dan Colley, have an eye for such eruptions. A comic sequence of hospice workers explaining what they do at dinner parties leads to a phenomenal outburst, conveying frustration and despair that few could put in words. It also means that it is not a retreat when we return to the system itself as a source of succour.
Like the eloquence of Sarah Jane Shiels’s supple design, there is an artful coalescence of technique and theme, where staffroom conversations blur into charming fantasy sequences, or the solving of loaded crossword clues prefigures the final realisation of death.
In Sonya Kelly's gentle bedside description of a final coping strategy, a system of care is not impersonal, but a necessary paradox, as honoured and consoling as a ritual.
Until March 1