The final act: from the hospice to the stage

WillFredd Theatre’s production reveals the courage that underpins the darkness and light, the ebb and flow, of life in a hospice

No one really wants to think about dying, but occasionally such thoughts are to the forefront of our minds.

Whether it is family members, the lives of friends or through fiction and news, dying is a part of life. And then life resumes its brisk momentum.

As Derek Mahon says in his wonderful poem, Everything Is Going to Be All Right : "There will be dying, there will be dying, / but there is no need to go into that."

For reasons of self-preservation, an inability to grapple with things we do not understand, or for fear of a morbid fascination, the world reshapes itself around the absence of the departed. Euphemisms abound: “departed”, passed away, left us. No, simply dead.


But what might we be losing by pushing death to one side? Does the undiscussed become shrouded in fear, or do we gain a creeping acceptance of it the older we get? WillFredd Theatre's Sophie Motley and Sarah Jane Shiels decided to look further, having both had experiences of family members going into palliative care. What, they wondered, does it take for someone to dedicate their lives to caring for the dying – for making the life of a person on the point of death better, while they can.

Theatrical interpretation
The results of their investigations, developed over a year working with hospices across Ireland, are presented in Care , which is now at

Project Arts Centre. Anyone who saw WillFredd's Follow – about the life of a hearing child of deaf adults, which won a Dublin Fringe Festival award in 2011, and the brilliant Farm , which brought animals and actors to the Fringe in 2012 and explored what it means to be farmer and farmed – will know that this company works differently. Its productions evolve, and Care is cut from the same immersive cloth.

At rehearsals in the Rough Magic offices in Dublin, five actors move around the room. The places that will later become key spots on stage are marked out with tape. There is a hospital bed; charts are tacked to the walls; a shop-window mannequin has words and numbers written on its sleek white surface in marker pen. As someone who is capable of crying at adverts, I wonder if I should have brought more tissues than the one stuffed up my sleeve. But what unfolds is moving rather than emotive and, even through just one scene, gives a profound sense of the layers of complicated reality involved when someone is leaving a life behind.

“All the words and movements come from what we saw in the hospices,” says Motley. The character Anne, whose admission we watch during the rehearsal, was written for WillFredd by one of the doctors. Anne is represented by the mannequin, a move that could depersonalise, but instead allows the audience to read their own experiences into it. Motley and Shields underline what anyone who has had an involvement with a hospice will also attest to: that they are warm, friendly and beautiful places. Unlike a hospital – where personal experience has revealed to me that patients and families often feel like impediments to the business of getting people in and out – hospices return the focus to the person.

Character-driven work
This isn't the first time a hospice has facilitated the making of a play. In 2011, Fishamble's The End of the Road followed Bill, a patient reminiscing, to trace the story of his life. In Care , the focus is different. As the actors – Jack Cawley, Sonya Kelly, Seán Mac Erlaine, Eleanor Methven and Shane O'Reilly – work to admit Anne, comparing notes and information on the passage of her cancer, and tracing out her extended family, noting what they can do for her, and for them, a picture emerges of the messy realities, even in the happiest families, and of the people touched by a single life and implicated in its end.

The different personalities among the staff come into play and the scene turns into a song. This is because, says Motley, “you can use music to tell the emotion”, and wind instruments, like life, “are all about breath”.

She quotes Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement, saying: "You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life. We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die." The song breaks the mood, possibly saving me the use of my single tissue.

Most of us will experience death before we experience death, if you see what I mean. It’s not something to enjoy exactly, but within it are times that can be enjoyed, treasured, savoured.

Care brings out the potential for these experiences and pays tribute to the amazing people who confront death so that those moments can have their time in the light. The rehearsals break for lunch, somewhere near the middle, so I don't know how it ends. If you think about it, that's not strictly true, though. We all know how it ends.

Care is at Project Arts Centre until March 1 ,