Review by Sam Waite
Warning: Blanket Ban features frequent mentions of abortion, miscarriage, abuse, and still-birth.
Davinia Hamilton and Marta Vella, despite both growing up in Malta, attending the same university, and having mutual friends, did not meet until both were living in London. Creatives and activists, their shared interests eventually grew into the creation of Blanket Ban, an ever-evolving piece of theatre exploring largely liberal Malta’s harsh restrictions on abortion. A risky subject matter, with Davinia openly saying she is sometimes scared of the play, have their efforts been worth the years of interviews, re-lived experiences, and internal anguish?
If such things can be measured by the quality of the material produced, then the answer is a resounding yes. With the help of Stephanie Dale, the dramaturg for the piece, Hamilton and Vella have blended some of the many stories they’ve been made privy to into an abstract work of theatre. Centred around Davinia and Marta themselves, hosting a sort of presentation and moving in and out of acted-out stories and interviews, the final product feels like the collaborative work of everyone involved, both those credited and those whose anonymous stories are shared.
Co-directors Sam Edmunds and Vikesh Godhwani keep a momentum to the piece that doesn’t allow for the heavier emotions to stagnate and take away from the joy the moments of genuine levity bring. Impressively, given their sharing the responsibility, their influence on the performances is subtle and understated, keeping both leads emotionally balanced in their work without it being obvious someone else has guided any of their choices. Van Braeckel’s design choices are simple, charming, and incredibly effective – a yellow floor on stage easily becomes the beaches of Malta, or a room where a woman frets over unwanted pregnancy. Behind the stage, a vertical screen allows for projections, leaning into the framing device of two women giving a presentation about their country.
A hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and still changing to account for both Malta and the rest of the world’s changing attitudes towards abortion, Blanket Ban examines a myriad of reasons an abortion may be wanted, or even needed. Alongside a repressed young woman who, after a drunken party with friends, finds herself pregnant despite believing she was still a virgin, we see Davinia and Marta bring to life women who simply do not feel their lives are equipped for a baby, or who had to travel abroad for the procedure. A particularly harrowing story finds a couple holidaying in Malta when the umbilical cord detaches, making her pregnancy no longer viable – as there is still a foetal heartbeat, they must wait at the hospital for the heartbeat to stop as the would-be mother is increasingly at risk of infection and death herself.
Through a variety of methods, these many stories are played out by our two hosts. Sometimes they play them as characters in short one- or two-woman plays, other times they act out the interviews themselves, and at other times they simply narrate and allow to weight of the story to fall over the audience. Both are very funny when called for – a moment where a Zoom call repeatedly freezes, and one character cannot hear the other trying to fill in the gaps, is hysterical – but also capable of great dramatic heights. Essentially portraying a heightened version of themselves within the framing device, the two eventually reach an argument between themselves as nationalism and a determined faith in one’s homeland seems to be increasingly at odds with the criticisms being raised.
Tom Fitch provides video design for this iteration of the show, helping to put across the idea of a presentation on Maltese history and current affairs by having the many images and stills used throughout projected as polaroid pictures, as if stuck up for us to view as they speak. Screenshots from Facebook using (horrifyingly) real comments are also used to great effect, and this is a key moment in which the creative elements come together. Holly Ellis’s lighting becomes dimmer, less inviting, and the sound design by Matteo Depares descends carefully into a maddening din as voices run over one another. When this sequence ends, pulses race and genuine feelings are stirred, such is the power of these combined elements.
The fluidity of the play and its performance styles makes it difficult to accurately describe – focusing on some moments may sell the whole thing as far too frivolous, whereas others would make it sound like an hour and a half of sheer misery. As is often the case in life, the correct assessment is somewhere in-between – there is a clear adoration for their Maltese upbringing, but the willingness and fearlessness of Davinia and Marta in continuing to perform and develop this play show their awareness of the grey areas surrounding their homeland. Some will find the structure too difficult to fully absorb, while others may still think any attempt at humour is too much, but there’s no denying the courage and power of this piece.
Blanket Ban plays at Southwark Playhouse Borough until May 20th
For tickets and information, visit https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/blanket-ban/
Photos by Ali Wright