Following its hit run at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, theatre makers and activists Davinia Hamilton and Marta Vella bring their rallying cry for Maltese reproductive rights to Southwark Playhouse. Blanket Ban was performed as part of New Diorama and Underbelly’s Untapped Award, and combines the artists’ lived experience with interviews, stories and video footage of Maltese women who have suffered the life-changing and life-threatening consequences of the country’s blanket ban on abortion. We spoke to Davinia Hamilton about the show
What is Blanket Ban about?
Blanket Ban is a show which explores the complete ban on abortion in Malta. A popular tourist destination, Malta is a progressive country with some trailblazing laws and provisions: university is free, there is free public transport and healthcare, it repeatedly places first in Europe for most progressive queer rights, and it recently legalised cannabis. And yet, it has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world. In the show, we try to investigate the reason behind this. Based on three years’ worth of interviews, we also delve into the personal consequences of this law for women and pregnant people in Malta.
It’s been made over several years, has it turned out how you expected?
When we started planning out the show, we strove to answer two questions. Firstly, what do these strict abortion laws mean for people in Malta and, secondly, what can we add to the discourse as theatre-makers that can’t be found by a simple Google search. We wanted to find a way to make use of our skill sets, in writing, making and performing theatre, to add to the conversation and put Malta in the spotlight – both to raise awareness about the situation there, and to offer a cautionary tale to British audiences, a warning not to be complacent about their own rights.
When Covid hit in 2020, it threatened to put a spanner in the works. But we decided to push ahead and embrace the limitations that were placed on us by lockdown. This proved to be a gamechanger — conducting interviews over Zoom meant we had access to more people, and gave us a new way of working. In the tradition of Erwin Piscator’s epic theatre, we aimed to combine the core drama of human experience with context and information conveyed through disruptive techniques and devices – in our case, Zoom interviews, sound bites and photographs – which always serve to provide political context. For this reason, we ended up creating a piece of work that attempted to capture many things at once: a country’s culture, history and identity, as well as a polyphony of voices from within that place. The piece involves verbatim text from interviews, voice-overs, poetry, sound design, comedy, and strong use of metaphor so the audience is always kept on their toes. The sea that surrounds Malta takes on the status of a strange god and has its own menacing voice; the Virgin Mary is reappropriated as a symbol of solace for women who feel alone, adrift and in pain. Because this is a show about a changing topic, and because there have been some developments recently, we have revised the show since our Edinburgh run, in order to reflect what has been happening.
It’s a hard-hitting topic, is it difficult to perform?
We have worked hard to make sure that the show contains plenty of moments of levity and relief — so, although some of the material is very difficult, and with each performance we remember the real women who have lived through these shocking experiences, we do not reach a conclusion of despair. And that’s really important for us. The response we had at the Fringe was phenomenal –– almost every evening, there were women who wanted to speak to us about their own experiences, and it was really incredible to know that they felt able to confide in us. I believe theatre should challenge social norms and assumptions. To imagine the world as a place that can always be re-made. I believe, to borrow a phrase from Donna Haraway, it’s about ‘staying with the trouble’, and inviting your audience to do the same, with the hope that they might come away from the experience enriched, transformed, and full of impetus to take action.
You’ve interviewed lots of different people, was it difficult to decide which interviews and stories were included?
It really was. We developed relationships and rapport with the people we interviewed — and especially with the women who shared their own personal stories with us anonymously. We know how brave they were to speak to us. Many of them had never told anyone before, because they were afraid of losing their job or being shunned by their loved ones or even being criminalised. So it really was hard to have to decide what was included and what wasn’t — my impostor syndrome was at a ten!
What’s your favourite line in the show?
At one point, my character says, ‘Sometimes, I’m afraid of this show,’ and I like that line, because it’s the truth.
What can audiences expect?
An evening of high-energy entertainment and storytelling. Hopefully, the show will make you think a lot, feel a lot, and laugh even more.
Blanket Ban is presented by Chalk Line Theatre at Southwark Playhouse 25 April – 20 May https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/blanket-ban/