DE-TERMINATED: CAN THEATRE SET THE STAGE FOR IMPOSSIBLE DEBATE?

Over the year, Eve has discussed many deep-seated issues, from bird trapping to gender stereotypes, but few articles received as many comments as Michaela Mihailovic’s punchy essays that lay down the main pro-choice arguments (Part I & Part II). It shows that people, most of whom have never been affected by unwanted pregnancy, would rather take their time to voice their opinion on this topic than on issues that have a much more immediate effect on their daily lives, such as environmental destruction. But this is a matter of life and death, the pro-life camp would say. For the pregnant women, and that’s what matters, the pro-choice camp would respond. Many tend to hold strong opinions either in favour of and strictly against liberalising access to abortion. It is in this climate that a new play at Spazju Kreattiv, based on real stories, attempts to bridge the divide.

The play, written and directed by Herman Grech, weaves together lives of seven people – two local campaigners (neither personally affected by abortion), two women who have had an abortion abroad, two men who abetted their partners’ abortion, and an American campaigner who was conceived of rape, carried to term and given up for adoption. The campaigners are the only ones who interact with each other. The individuals affected by abortion, pro-lifers who speak publicly in Malta as well as pro-choicers who keep their personal experience to themselves, narrate their stories in solitude.

The characters step up from darkness into unrelenting spotlight. Although the actors keep emerging from and disappearing into the audience, it certainly does not feel like their characters are intimately confiding in someone sympathetic – and perhaps it cannot be like that. The spotlight and the characters’ often frantic movement (or modest staring at their own hands) makes it feel more like an interrogation, which we are all observing.

Collecting these stories, obviously, looked different. Using a wealth of contacts from his reporting career, Grech met individuals in one or another way affected by abortion and offered them a safe space to speak out. He says that in some of the narratives his artistic intervention was minimal, as his interviewees were able to tell their stories so powerfully – as in the case of a woman raped by her ex abroad, played brilliantly by Marta Vella. Some of the interviewees had never shared their experience of abortion before.

Euronews documentary

Now that the Irish referendum has won and, making far less international fuss, Cyprus decriminalised early-term abortion, Malta and Poland are the only two remaining countries in the EU where abortion is not available by choice. So nowadays many anonymous personal stories of Maltese women with abortion experience circulate in local and international media. Having had the option of producing more of those, Grech opted for the medium of theatre to give these stories a face, a voice, and a personality – everything that is stripped off in reporting to protect the individual’s privacy.

As tension rises in the play, the main question becomes, who will have the final say? One of the women? Or one of the men, who end up with very different choices in life? The play feels too dense for double-cast, and as much as Alan Paris strives to individualise the two men, they somewhat blend together. Perhaps this is intended. As one twitter thread recently proclaimed, most abortions are directly caused by irresponsible ejaculation. In my social bubble, I am probably more likely to hear out a woman who has had an abortion than a man who would be prepared to ruin another human being’s life just to extract marginally more pleasure from them. So a man who abetted his partner’s abortion is a whole new character in this discussion. In the play, it all ends well for the men. The women are forced to live in silence.

There is no solution and no proposal. The way Grech chooses to arrange the final statements from his characters shows how carefully he tries to tiptoe around the national sensitivities, trying not to burn any bridges and appear in favour of one camp or another. Religious people will nod seeing that three unwanted pregnancies in the plot resulted from irresponsible sex. Those already pro-choice will have the example of a rape victim to cite. But as the playwright realised, theatre is perhaps one of the few places where all of them would sit and listen before taking to their keyboard to comment.

De-terminated: The abortion diaries premieres today at Spazju Kreattiv and will be also performed on 20, 21, 26, 27 and 28 October at 8 pm. More information and tickets here.

Further reading:

I swallowed it: reader shares her experience of travelling abroad to get a morning-after pill before it was legal

Cover photo credit: Elisa von Brockdorff for Spazju Kreattiv