“Birth” at the Palace Theatre: a Labour of Love
If you have never had the unique experience of witnessing a woman giving birth on stage, then maybe it’s time to get yourself a ticket to “Birth”—a unique play by Karen Brody currently being performed at the Palace theatre in London until October 29. This show revolves around the personal stories of eight female characters and their exploits preparing for their pregnancies, navigating a complicated nine-month obstacle course with intervening obstetricians, parents, clueless husbands, and a plethora of alternative methods such as painkillers, natural births, home births and midwives and doulas.
After passing through the Palace Theatre’s stage doorway (cleverly adorned with red, white and pink streamers as if to simulate exiting—or entering—a woman’s uterus), the audience is “birthed” into an intimate stage setting comprised of a ground-level checkered stage with four or five rows of chairs on rising bleachers. With minimalist props and furniture (at times only a chair and a couch to simulate a taxi cab and at times one stool center-stage), the set design transports the viewer back and forth from living rooms to hospital rooms in an exciting but comprehensible sequence of shorts tightly stitched together by the consistent, chronological monologue of the changing narrators.
While the acting was for the most part animated and dynamic, a number of actors stood out: Rebecca Weatherstone who played Sandy, arguably the most featured lead, told an emotional and at times laugh-out-loud monologue (broken up into parts and interspersed throughout the show) and transitioned between acting in live time and acting as first person narrator beautifully--sometimes even sitting up from the hospital bed mid-labour to calmly interject her narrative and feelings about an event. Vanessa, portrayed by Tia Brown, though she noticeably missed a number of lines in the first half, never lost character and redeemed herself with the most raw, memorable and entertaining birthing scene in the second half. All their husbands were played by the same actor, James Wybrow, who humorously managed it all by switching between multiple costumes, accents and personas, even though his characters were really just one personification of playwright Karen Brody’s thesis that women alone are the best support system for pregnant women. The obstetricians (or obstetrician—they almost all shared one personality) was well performed by Lance Mercer, whose deliberate monotone and carelessness to the women were both comedic and tragic, depending on how much weight viewers place on this play as a mirror representation of reality.
As to be expected on the first night, not all spoken lines were nailed down one hundred percent--there were a number of delayed reactions, missed cues and awkward pauses, pauses perhaps accentuated by the creative decision of director Danielle Longfield and sound designer Joan Bishop to use barely any music or sound effects either during or between scenes, except for a Foley clip of a phone ring at one moment, and “Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin playing during the intermission. Compounded with incomplete blackouts between scenes, the already slow-moving first half had the undeniable feel of a stop-and-start dress rehearsal.
All in all, though, most of the women came very much into their own during their birthing scenes; there must be something about spreading one’s legs and pretending to push an invisible baby out on stage--perhaps the letting loose and howling for all it’s worth in front of a live audience-- that allowed each woman to transcend her opening night jitters (which otherwise caused slight inhibitions and self-consciousness) and simply connect with their womanhood.
What makes this play truly stand out is its supportive, intimate bonds between the women and their friends, who call out disembodied calls of support and reactions to their stories at times and the bond the women and the viewers, who are addressed directly and even called upon for audience participation to encourage one woman by repeating “My Body is Awesome”. This supportive vibe plays into the central message of the show and voices a strong message about women-power, sisterhood and the natural miracle that is the woman’s body (which in most of the storylines, fares best when allowed to do its job naturally with the support of other women, and without male, medical or pharmaceutical intervention). As the icing on the proverbial cake, an interesting Q&A session afterwards featuring doulas, Midwives, and mothers with recent birthing experience makes this play not only entertaining and meaningful, but also highly educational to prospective mothers (and perhaps even more so to their partners)!