Ruth Hegarty, Actor, in Conversation with Ursula Somerville

Play: Begotten not Made,  Date aired; 20th March 2011 Radio1, Playwright: Paul Meade: Plot: Two married heterosexual couples, in which one wife plans to die by assisted suicide in Switzerland, and the other wife plans to conceive a child through IVF.

Ursula talks to her sister Ruth about her role in the play and other things.

Ursula: Thank you very much for agreeing to meet with me today and I am looking forward to talking about the play in which you were in recently. But first could you say something about how you prepare for a role like Dorothy who is preparing to travel to Switzerland for assisted suicide?

Ruth: Well this role had been with me for a long time before it was aired on the radio recently.  But the way I prepare for a part is to work instinctively, so when I am given a script I follow my instinct.  The Play was the result of a competition by the Council of Bioethics as part of the Jim McNaughton/Tilestyle Bursary for Commissioned Artists, together with Allianz Business to Arts Award in 2009 and it was performed as readings in Dail Eireann, for politicians, Farmleigh House for the Bioethic people and in The Law Library for the legal profession.  I suppose when it was given a radio production it was a real bonus.  I think those two stories are very interesting but the play started its life as three ethical stories and the one that did not transfer to radio was the story of a brother and sister with one born as a “savior sibling” for the other and his cells were used to save his sister’s life. It is written retrospectively with them reflecting on their own story. But because of time the Radio production could only allow the two strands.

Ursula: One of the first things I notice as your character, Dorothy, comes on is that she is trick-acting singing the rhyme “One two pick up my shoe” and then you realise she is in a wheelchair and with that Michael Murphy, the RTE newscaster, is on the radio in the background talking about assisted suicide. As soon as her husband comes back she changes the station on the radio what’s your sense of that?

Ruth: Yes, she has been listening to the radio and I think she does not want to hear the full reality of the decision she has made and the relationship she has with her husband, obviously they have a good relationship, they never had any children, so perhaps she has a closer relationship than others with children, but she pretends to be a femme fatale, she is in a wheelchair and that’s her reality because she has MS. He pretends he has given up smoking but because he is nervous about the decision to go to Switzerland for assisted suicide, he smokes secretly.  Obviously they have talked about the decision to go there but mostly it is her decision. He wants to go to Lourdes hoping for some kind of miracle on the way.

Ursula: I suppose while listening to it, it seemed that she did a lot to soften it for him, demonstrating her love for him.  I think she was taking care of him more than him taking care of her for a lot of it.

Ruth: Yes, and I think when they are actually there,  in Switzerland,  the reality hits that she perhaps realises that this was her thing and that he has opted out to a certain extent, and she wants it at that point, nearly when it’s too late, to be a two way decision.

Ursula: Do you think that there was some fear in her in Lourdes that she may change her mind, as she states she is afraid that her “Certificate of Competence” will expire?

Ruth: Yes, there is a real fear of that because now he is taking care of her as she has become incontinent at that stage and she is getting big indications of what is to come and the disease has moved on and she is frustrated with wasting time in Lourdes.  I think she is disintegrating quite quickly the longer the illness went on.

Ursula: It seems very important to her that she hears her husband say out loud that “there is a part of me that wants you to die”. That was the first time in the play that she becomes very serious, it’s like she can’t move on until she hears that from him?

Ruth: Because he tries to cop-out a lot by saying that “you said you were afraid of losing your swallow and having to be fed through a tube in your neck and you did not want to become incontinent” and other negative features about MS and she eggs him on and she makes him say it in the end and I think from her point of view it was important to hear that because I suppose the love that she had for him she did not want him to suffer but she did not want herself to suffer either.  And with all that was going with the decision of it all there was a love story in it also.  When she got to Switzerland and the whole scene there of sitting on the park bench I think she suddenly realised that it is one thing talking about it in the comfort of your living room, and that’s when she says to him that “this was the real decision, here, now and we’re running around having fun and you’re doing funny voices and all but we should really be talking seriously at this point”.  She felt that it was not fair that he did not fully participate “ this is not fair, you have left it to me, I want you to have an input now so it is not fully my responsibility for what’s going on here”. I think it is a bit of an eye opener at that stage, she thinks she has made the decision but actually this is where it is – the actual going through with it is very painful – obviously. She did want him to say it out loud “come on, come on, say it say it” then she can have some peace.  Then it becomes a dual decision. Yes, but she did have to push him quite a bit.

Ursula:  There’s a second story operating at the same time within the play – that of assisted of bringing into life as in the IVF as they struggle to decide how far they are willing to go to conceive. I wonder what your thoughts are about both of these situations and that Dorothy never had a child?

Ruth: My instinctual thought is that it is ok if that is their choice.  I think people have the right to choose.  I suppose when you are able to have children without thought it is very hard to appreciate when you want a child and you can’t have it – I don’t know what that is like. Yes, I thought it was very poignant the fact that Dorothy did not have a child and when the two stories meet at the end, when she is gone, and the two husbands meet in a corridor much like the one Dorothy’s husband had been in when she pass away and he says to Louisa’s husband, over a shared bar of Kit Kat, “you meet life and death in a corridor like this and in it you close one door– that’s a door opening don’t miss it”.

Ursula: So what would Dorothy think of Louisa, the woman trying to conceive?

Ruth: I think Dorothy might have been sympathetic to Louisa because I would say from Dorothy she would like to have had children.  I think she might have wanted to have children with someone that she loved so much.  It is the same thing, as you are saying, it was assisted also and I think she would have approved of that assisted way given that she chose that way for herself to die. I think she might have been a help and support to Louisa.

Ursula: And, Ruth, can you talk a little about the two partners in all of this.  It seemed to me they are active in almost, not quite changing the decisions that have been taken, but not really with the two characters who are making the decision? You know, Dorothy’s husband wants to go to Lourdes and Louisa’s husband is trying desperately to secure another source of having a baby?

Ruth: I suppose if I were to look at it objectively they are very strong women and maybe the men are not living up to the mark.  I think the women are quite grounded really.  The guys might not be so sure about themselves.  I suppose wanting to change and wanting to be in control.  Louisa’s husband’s desire for a baby was nearly greater than Louisa’s at one point.  And she tells him to “get lost” while he reaches for a brandy.  He does eventually see his part in it all before the end.

Ursula: Life after death, what do you think Dorothy believed?

Ruth: Well judging by her attitude to Lourdes, I don’t think she thought there was anything after death. To be honest I think she thought it was all a load of nonsense.  That may have been just bravado stuff but she just seems a very intelligent woman, she seems very tuned in and clued in and fun loving and I think when she went to Lourdes, even though it touched her with the way people were coping with their illnesses it upset her also and I think it was the commercial side that she rubbished. But maybe in her darker moments she looked beyond that – I am not exactly sure about that.

Ursula: She used a lot of humour when in Lourdes at one point saying “maybe tomorrow I will be pushing you”.

Ruth: She did, saying the Hail Mary and all that.  It is hard to know.  There is a lot of black humour in it.  Of course, from my own point of view it is an incredible decision to come to when you are compass mentis.  You would have to research and know exactly what is going to happen to you, I would anyway, before you make that decision.  She is still mentally competent she is still able to laugh and talk.  It must be a horrendous decision to make.

Ursula: There was a part for me wanting the husband of Dorothy to listen to her, to take her where she wanted to go.

Ruth: But I think, as well, for her, doing what he wanted I think there was a part of her that understood that when she’s gone he needed to know that he tried everything. She may have understood that part of it. She did not want him to suffer after she had gone and so she went to Lourdes.  I think that is the measure of her love for him also.

Ursula: I was very moved by the part in the play where he gaily says he has bought a camera to take with him.  My heart really went out to him there.  It’s clear he has deep belief in God but she does not.

Ruth: Yes, there was a bit of denial in him there.  She says “I’m not coming back, he interrupts and says “but you might be” but she is definite “I am happy to go to Lourdes on the way but then I’m going to Switzerland and that will be the end”. 

Ursula: Were there struggles, I know you have spoken about taking on the part instinctively, for you in this part?

Ruth: No, in the sense of?

Ursula:  In the sense that it was an end of life?

Ruth: Not really, I suppose when I have a script and the mantel of the character I would immediately get into spirit of Dorothy and what she is doing and I push myself away.

Ursula: Is she based on anyone you know?

Ruth: Not really, but I presume there is a certain amount of myself in it.  I think it is very hard to check into yourself when you are doing something like that because you are actually thinking out the character and so I am not actually thinking of me.  To a certain extent you have to be aware of the panic stuff and how she will be feeling at that time.  That is the way acting is.  There are a lot of things going on at the same time.

Ursula: I wonder, Ruth about the human intervention versus nature, do you think if Dorothy had a child would she have taken the same decision?

Ruth: Maybe not, but I am not sure if that is me talking or Dorothy.  I am reminded of the film with Julie Walters telling the story of Dr Anne Turner going to Switzerland and she did have children but they were grown up.  But Dorothy never wanted to be a burden to anyone and I think perhaps she would have made the same decision.  I suppose I would not like it as well.

Ursula: You would not like it?

Ruth: I would probably make the same decision as Dorothy, if I knew that was my fate.

Ursula: Yes, and those they are leaving behind they have their decision in that as well?

Ruth: I think when all is looked at these decisions are made with other people as well.  I think I would be supported by other people in my life.

Ursula: We both know people who would never support a decision like that.

Ruth: I think you need to allow people the right to make decisions and with certain people whether you decide to die by assisted or by natural causes these events will always be difficult to them.

Ursula: Regarding the ethical element of both of these decisions, because for me there seems to be secrecy around both of these choices with both partners being asked to hold a lot?

Ruth: Yes, it creates debate with interested parties and uninterested parties who have an opinion about all of this.  Because it is very controversial and some of it also comes down to religion and I am not sure that it needs to be.  I think we need to have choices about it particularly, as you say, if they are going to be nuisance, or they feel they are going to be.  Or they feel they are not going to be able to make decisions.  I would like to feel that I want to be out of here.

Ursula: I think that there is a religious piece here also. Like what’s going to happen next, when you pass over.  I think the lessons of old in Catholic Ireland and the teachings at that time creates a real struggle to even make that decision in particular when we think of life ever after. Dorothy’s husband had to keep secret, even in the hospital at the end of the play where the two partners meet, he cannot talk about Dorothy’s death.  This was the biggest thing in his life and he could not talk about it.

Ruth: Dorothy says to her husband that the reason they did not talk about it outside of themselves was because they were afraid of being talked out of it. While with Louisa’s husband he is talking and planning her next move in the struggle to get his needs met by her having a child. And there is a whole other story about what is going on there!

Ursula: So your own view of suicide or assisted suicide and assisted conception is the right to choose?

Ruth: Yes I would always have that.

Ursula: You spoke about the location where you did the recording for this play and I was struck at your reflections on this.

Ruth: In the radio plays I had done in the past in a studio there would be a Prop man beside you and they would drop in the relevant sounds around the script.  However, on this occasion we were taken to a location down by the Dodder River and there were children from a local Crèche running around in the background.  There were dogs barking and at a particular time, I remember, when Dorothy was speaking about the birds and somehow the birds began to sing at this crucial moment. And so from an actor’s point of view this was amazing and totally authentic.  And you just got the sense of what she was talking about, sitting on this park bench, it’s a beautiful day and all seems right with the world and yet there is this incredible decision for them to go and put an end to her life.  She is actually enjoying his company and the birds and the whole thing and it was extraordinary doing it on location – quite an experience.  I was thinking as we were sitting on the park bench of the sadness of what she was doing.

Ursula: I am really struck as you say that at how much life there was around as she was taking the steps to take her own life.  I don’t know how she did that, you know life is so precious. How she had the reserve right up to the end to do it.  I was really struck also with Brian (her husband) in the hospital at the end of the play when he is speaking to Louisa’s husband and he describes himself coming out of the apartment after Dorothy is gone, he speaks of the people sitting on their balconies, of a woman putting her waste bins out for collection and the most amazing and tragic thing had just happened to him.

Ruth:  Ah yes, the grim apartment room.  It is so stark and clinical and he describes so well following the coffin, into an unmarked van, that was holding his wife who only a short time before was sitting on the park bench.  I really think that doing it on location gave the listener a much different experience of the depth of feeling around this subject.

Ursula: Do you have to be brave to make a decision like Dorothy made?

Ruth: I’m not sure.  I think you have to be brave not to make that decision.  Maybe it requires more courage to keep going.

Ursula: I am thinking of that final moment.

Ruth: I suppose to take the tablets or whatever you do does require courage but then you see people fighting on and that is so brave and courageous also.

Ursula: It’s clear it is a difficult decision no matter which one is chosen.  Ruth, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me on these very difficult and complex human stories. I have really enjoyed talking to you.