In Difficulties with Volkswagen, Anne Enright’s probing 2010 essay, reproduced in the Dublin Review’s new anthology Show Your Work, the author reflects upon the absence of the “labouring woman” in Irish literature. She discusses episode 14 of Ulysses, Oxen of the Sun, which is set in the basement of Holles Street hospital, where a group of men reflect upon childbearing and child rearing as Mina Purefoy gives birth upstairs.
Enright writes: “The birth of Mina’s baby is told from multiple perspectives. It is told, you could say, by everyone but Mina. It is not actually told at all. This is a crowd scene: the action — the real and sacred event — takes place elsewhere.”
Into this vacuum of “elsewhere” comes All Hardest of Woman, a new site-specific production from Anu Productions and Emilie Pine inspired by Joyce’s Holles Street episode, which will be staged on the premises of what is now the National Maternity Hospital this October.
The live production, which is part of the Ulysses 2.2 project and the Dublin Theatre Festival programme for 2022, was inspired by Pine’s tenure as writer in residence at Holles Street hospital, a position she held in 2019-2020. It was a period of great productivity and healing for the writer, who was a patient at the hospital in recent years. She documents this experience with bracing, bruising honesty in her 2018 essay collection Notes to Self. “God, I hate this place,” she writes, as she suffers through a variety of gruelling fertility examinations that leave her “distraught at the end of a wanted pregnancy, but denied the right to know what’s happening inside my own body”.
Returning to the hospital for her residency, Pine reflects, was “personally and professionally healing. [It helped me] to move beyond the traumatic experiences I had”. She spent time in the hospital library and the waiting rooms, talking to patients and nurses, a process which “helped me to shift away from [a painful reminder] of the hospital as a place where babies are born, but to see it as a place of reproductive health, where people are visiting the menopause clinic or the gynaecology clinic, not necessarily just having babies”.
Covid brought a premature end to Pine’s residency at the hospital, and the writer was not sure what the outcome of her time there would be. “I knew I would write something, I just didn’t know what.” Her experiences at the hospital, both as patient and observer, fed into her debut novel, Ruth and Pen, which was published earlier this year. Like Ulysses did for Leopold Bloom, the novel charts a day in the life of two women in Dublin: Ruth, who is trying to conceive, and autistic teenager Pen.
It also fed into Pine’s collaboration with Anu, which is a more formal engagement with Joyce’s book, as well as a conversation with Holles Street’s history and women’s medical experience within the building. “I was really struck both as patient and writer,” Pine says, “by the idea of the waiting room, how much suppressed emotion these rooms contain. I spent a lot of time sitting in these beautiful Victorian spaces at different times of the day, and there was always a question mark there: whether [the waiting] was a happy thing or whether someone was waiting to be told some [difficult news] by an expert.” Pine’s notebooks have become a key text for All Hardest of Woman, but Pine is keen to make clear that she is “not the playwright. I’m just one part of a creative project that Anu is pursuing. Mine is just one voice”.
On a Monday morning in Studio 3 at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, director Louise Lowe and performers Una Kavanagh, Etta Fusi, Matthew Williamson and Alex O’Neill are huddled around a table examining a hand-drawn map of the waiting room in Holles Street. The seating banks, toilets and information stands are sketched out in black ink, as are the tiny rooms where women are examined by doctors. A stack of fluorescent page markers have been turned upright to stand in for bodies, and Lowe moves them around to indicate where the action will take place. “Una will be here cleaning ... Etta will walk all along here” — she traces the route with her fingers — “Matt and Alex are here. Dance, dance, dance.”
The company spent the weekend at the hospital rehearsing, a rare window of opportunity in what is one of the most logistically tricky projects they have embarked upon. “The only time we can get in,” Lowe explains, “is when it is closed. They have late clinics there during the week, so we went in on Friday night and stayed there Saturday and Sunday, when we had the place to ourselves. The thing is, it’s a working hospital, with people [in the waiting room, where the show will be performed] until seven, eight at night, with our show at nine, finishing every night at 11, and then people coming back in every morning at seven, eight o’clock. So we can’t have lights, really. We can’t have a set. We have to strike things every night because these rooms have to return to a workable hospital space again every morning. They will be filled again with doctors, nurses, people waiting. We are calling it a ‘lo-fi spatial intervention’,” Lowe laughs, “because that is the way it has to be to work for everybody. I don’t know. It is either a very brave or a very stupid idea.”
It is not, however, new territory for Anu, whose work has always been haunted by the left-behind legacies in the architecture of various sites in Dublin’s cityscape. If walls could talk, as the cliché goes, Anu has made so many walls confess their secrets: from their very first production, Basin, in the gatehouse at Blessington Street Basin in 2009; to the abandoned Magdalene laundry on Sean McDermott for 2011′s Laundry; to more recent interventions at Dublin Port (Canaries and The Book of Names in 2020 and 2021).
In All Hardest of Woman they are again listening in “to the residues and resonances contained in the walls”, as Kavanagh puts it, describing her role as one of the actors co-creating the work. “There’s the joy, the pain, the laughter. If you are waiting [in the maternity hospital] there is so much to be answered in the air, so much trepidation, so much hope.” As part of her research, Kavanagh spent time sitting in the hospital with the rest of the production team, observing the daily heartbeat of the site. They were struck, she says, by “how women use this space, how spread out women were [in the waiting room], how comfortable people were, how they were so contained by their own singular experience, by what was happening for them”.
Kavanagh plays a cleaner in the intimate performance piece that has resulted from their exploration. While researching Oxen of the Sun — which is structured to echo the nine months of gestation — and while reading Pine’s residency journals, “the idea of a [hospital] cleaner came into mind ... from the spillover of language and the richness of the Dublin accent” in Joyce’s book, and the recorded conversations with cleaners in Pine’s notes, “who are so rooted in the community of the hospital, who see everything that is going on”. Kavanagh was interested in developing a character who “has an ease of her body in the [hospital] space”.
“She has enough ownership that she feels comfortable to have a little nap in there. But she has her own biological and fertile history too. How does that affect how her story intersects with the others?”
We have all had experiences, whether that was being treated for endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, pregnancy or miscarriage. Really, you can’t be a woman and not think about this sort of stuff
As Lowe explains, the rehearsal room was filled with the collaborators’ personal experiences of the hospital. “We have all had experiences [there],” she says of her female collaborators, “whether that was being treated for endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, pregnancy or miscarriage. But really, even if you haven’t [been a patient] you can’t be a woman and not think about this sort of stuff.” Fusi plays one such hospital patient, who has returned to the hospital after the clinic has closed, dissatisfied with the doctor’s diagnosis: that she should wait to see what the next few days will bring to her body. “We are using the real time nature of it being late at the hospital,” Lowe says, “but also the idea that this woman is realising her own agency within the system.” Fusi says: “She is a vulnerable body, but she is not an accepting body. There is tension there.”
Much of this tension is generated by the presence of a male junior doctor (played by O’Neill) who, as Lowe explains, “has had a pretty rough day. He comes back in to have a break and is confronted [by Fusi’s patient]. We did want this to be a piece that would speak to women,” she continues, “but we also wanted to reflect the impact of the stress of working hours and conditions for doctors.” Rather than offering up a formally gendered space, “we are trying to put the full range of humanity back in”.
“Poor Alex, though,” Lowe jokes, and the other women laugh. “We would be in rehearsal, all talking about our experiences, and he would be just ashen.”
O’Neill, who has been silently dancing as we talk, chimes in with his perspective on what it means to be a man in this creative environment and within the theatrical environment the company is creating. His role, he offers tersely, preferring his body to do the talking, “is about vulnerability, as well, and about care”.