National Theatre Wales are celebrating 70 years of the NHS in 2018 with a series of plays about the institution and what it means to us.
One of those, ‘Cotton Fingers’ by Rachel Trezise, returns with a tour of Northern Ireland and Wales before heading to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer.
This time on the anniversary of the abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland, it offers an additional layer of commentary – on identity, as Aoife feels ‘more Irish than British’, but also on the current state of political affairs, as Brexit has all but obscured the abortion debate in Northern Ireland.
In the interim theatrical politics have also coloured NTW’s own work, with the criticism around a lack of Welsh talent and Welsh stories involved in their work.
Trezise is a Welsh playwright, and the play is directed by Welsh director Julia Thomas. And while this is an Irish story, despite the links to Wales, the latter doesn’t actually matter.
In fact, it is arguable that this kind of collaborative storytelling is exactly what a National theatre is designed for. A pulling together of stories from beyond our own borders- non-insular, outward-looking and forward thinking.
Most importantly, nationality should not be a barrier to the writing of a good play, or the telling of an important story. And one which does, as Tresize’s narrative shows, have a very Welsh strand; every day, women from Northern Ireland are forced to come here for abortions.
And that is as much our story as theirs. It’s easy, as we sit in Wales, or Edinburgh when this play transfers up there, to take our rights for granted. Or to think the abortion debate is something going on in the far reaches of American red states.
In fact, it’s in our cities, and it’s women we may pass every day. And this very human story of one woman highlights that.
Performed with passion and sensitivity, and wry humour, by Amy Molloy, Cotton Fingers is the story of Aoife, a 19-year-old Belfast woman. Working class, Council Estate raised, she longs to ‘better’ herself in various ways, and for various reasons.
She is haunted by the stories of women around her, all tied to child rearing. Her Mother, once widowed, struggling with her two daughters. Her sister, struggling with money, and her mental health, to raise her two children alone. And the Aunt who died in mysterious circumstances, that transpire to be linked to borrowing money from a loan shark for an abortion.
Aoife lives the product of generations of women affected by Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. So, when Aoife finds herself pregnant at 19, she embarks on a journey to ‘the mainland’ and Cardiff to end the pregnancy.
Trezise frames her play with waiting. With Aoife in a perpetual state of limbo. From waiting for her period, her flight to take off, for pills to work, for a seat on a crowded train while bleeding.
This theme is highlighted by the waiting room set up of Carl Davies’ design, a set of plastic waiting room chairs against a brick wall backdrop.
Aoife moves the chairs around- sometimes echoing the action – sometimes seemingly as a kinetic expression of emotion. All the while leaving a trail of scars in the fake snow-covered floor. It’s a neat and affecting expression between Davies and director Julia Thomas.
It’s also deftly performed by Molloy. Walking the line between the weight of the subject matter, the politics at stake, and retaining a humour of the performance that pulls in and holds an audience.
Trezise knows that engaging an audience is most important in conveying the underlying messages of the subject matter.
And so there’s enough teenage life, enough everyday frustrations, and enough swaggering humour to have the audience invested in Aoife enough to make her story more than just another ‘abortion tale’.
And also to make this an engaging piece of theatre, rather than a treatise or political platform.
It is of course political. In the utter essence of the personal is the political, every woman in the audience will feel the abortion debate to her bones. They will hopefully feel the rage, the grief and the need to stand up and fight based on Aoife’s story.
One of the play’s most affecting sequences is Aoife watching the abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland. Trezise uses sparse descriptions, but it’s enough to stir up the memories of watching the Home to Vote movement.
The power in stirring up those images of women coming from all across the world to vote for their own – and more so those women they might have been left behind in Ireland to have the right to autonomy over their own body.
This scene brings into focus the magnitude of the debate – beyond Ireland to America and to every country where women are denied abortions. It is a reminder that this debate is political in every sense.
And it’s also a call to arms. In recalling those women who travelled Home to Vote, Trezise reminds everyone of the solidarity they owe the women of Northern Ireland.
A reminder that while there was a celebration, there is a sense that Northern Ireland has since been left behind.
And in recent news headlines, as British feminists rallied (rightly so) behind American states fighting for abortion rights, there was also a reminder that our near neighbours in Northern Ireland are still denied that right.
Perhaps there is a tendency within our liberal feminist bubbles to think that anti-abortion campaigners are all middle-aged men in middle America somewhere. And that stereotype might be not without basis.
But it’s also other people – other women, shockingly – who are sometimes the quiet campaigners. And we need to remind ourselves that pro-choice is not always pro-abortion, and that it is always a personal choice – don’t want an abortion, don’t have one.
But do not stand in the way of women who need them. Because it should be a right for every single woman.
No woman wants an abortion. That seems to be the one fact that the narrow-minded misogynists can’t get their head around.
Be it women like Aoife, young and vulnerable. Be it women with a medical need, be it the woman who was raped, be it the woman who mentally could not cope with a pregnancy.
It doesn’t matter the reasons why and it’s nobody’s business but hers. What matters is it’s a choice no woman wants to make. But one she should have the right to make.
What Trezise and NTW do with this play is to remind us of the humanity of that, and the importance of abortion rights.
Trezise and Thomas have crafted – with Molloy’s multi-faceted engaging performance – a play that is deceptively simple. On the surface, it seems an engaging, often humorous, utterly moving and ultimately hopeful tale of one woman’s story.
But she’s just one woman. The cleverness of Trezise’s storytelling opens us up to engage with all those other women’s stories.
As Aoife discovers her Mum’s story, her aunt’s… she realises she isn’t alone. The genie is out of the bottle, she says.
A year ago the Referendum in the Republic of Ireland opened that conversation in the North, and Trezise’s play is an important chapter in that conversation.
And one we as audiences must continue to have.
It is written by Rachel Trezise, directed by Julia Thomas and performed by Amy Molloy.