Womb at Coombe: Hospital play imagines what giving birth will be like in 100 years

Coombe Hospital’s theatre company in residence is to stage WOMB , a play which imagines birthing 100 years from now, writes Marjorie Brennan

Maud Hendricks and Bernie O’Reilly of Outlandish Theatre Platform in rehearsals at the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital.

MEDICINE and the arts may not appear to be natural bedfellows — the reflective and imaginative nature of creativity at odds with the often intense and proactive practice of healthcare. However, in recent years, many hospitals have seen the positive impact of incorporating artistic practice in a medical setting, with patients, staff and the surrounding community all benefitting.

Outlandish Theatre Platform, founded by Maud Hendricks and Bernie O’Reilly, is the first theatre company in residence at the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital in Dublin. As part of this year’s First Fortnight Mental Health Art and Culture Festival, it is staging a production called WOMB, an experimental piece exploring birthing and women’s rights in an imagined Dublin 100 years from now. They have been working with the Coombe for three years and according to Hendricks, it has been a unique and rewarding experience.

“It is such an amazing and exciting place to be, as birth is one of the most life-changing experiences,” she says.

The Coombe hospital has been in existence since 1823 and is very much rooted in the community from which it takes its name, a historic and vibrant part of Dublin city, now home to a diverse population. Hendricks says this very much informs their collaboration with the hospital; WOMB features two professional performers and five community participants.

“One in three babies in the Coombe are born to non-Irish-born mothers — it’s the birthing ground of the new Ireland. Being in the Coombe is lovely, because you experience that diversity and all the different experiences.”

Every week, Outlandish hosts an open theatre practice for people from the hospital and those from the wider Dublin 8 community.

“It’s a performance-making workshop of about an hour and a half and we have people who have worked on previous projects as well as those who have heard about our work by word of mouth,” says Hendricks. “A maternity hospital is not the most natural place for arts practice, but it makes for an interesting dynamic.”

The issues around reproductive rights and birth which WOMB examines have been much discussed in Ireland in recent years, largely due to the referendum on the eighth amendment. The dystopian treatment of the topic is also a familiar theme, thanks to the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale.

“[This piece] touches on birth control in the future, there’s planetary change and potential birth restrictions in place to save humanity. Putting the story in the future is a way to distance ourselves slightly from the reality and... maybe find a new perspective to discuss this in a wider context of society,” says Hendricks.

While there are obviously complex issues involved in such work, she says their aim is to explore these rather than come to any conclusions.

“Obviously, my womb is very much a part of my personal body and I don’t think anyone has a right over it. [But] we frame ourselves as a theatre of inquiry, our process is about finding questions rather than making a moral statement. We have our personal beliefs about choice and they’re clear among the people we’ve developed the concept with, but we’re also trying to ask searching questions, questions we don’t know the answers to.”

While artistic therapy is now more common in healthcare, Hendricks says that the theatrical practice that Outlandish espouses has different aims.

“That’s not our focus, but most people would feel it has a large therapeutic benefit for them.

“Definitely, there are therapeutic factors, and people do have revelatory experiences, but that’s not our area of expertise. We’re not therapists — we’re facilitators, professional theatre-makers trained in performance.”

For the production of WOMB, O’Reilly and Hendricks engaged in a long process of research and development, interviewing midwives and other staff members of the Coombe.

“It’s a conversation, there is a lot of sharing involved,” says Hendricks.

One of the staff members involved in the process was midwife Shelley Carlisle, who extols the benefits of having a theatre in residence in the Coombe.

“For staff, it is an excellent outlet for what can be a stressful job. [Maternity] is a very emotive medicine, we have such highs and lows. Any form of art is beneficial, but especially theatre because you are able to play out scenarios. People probably see medicine and the arts as being opposed and they might scoff at bringing in theatre but it has worked really well in the Coombe, where a lot of the staff are involved in the arts.”

Hendricks says they are very aware of the pressure under which staff at the hospital operate.

“What we do is a very gentle entering into the hospital sphere itself, it is about tracking the pressure staff are under and when we do something we want to contribute to their experience or give something back.”

Outlandish Theatre Platform, in partnership with First Fortnight Europe and the Coombe Hospital, presents WOMB, Jan 14-19, 8pm, Dance Studio at Samuel Beckett Centre. Matinee, 2pm, Saturday, Jan 19. Tickets: €15/€12 https://bit.ly/2DTO0MO


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