Image: Natalie Medlock stars in 'The Voice in My Head'.
As we’ve discussed previously on Villainesse, abortion isn’t exactly a subject that slips its way readily into everyday conversation. It’s unlike race relations or housing crises or even euthanasia – topics that, although often contentious, can still be discussed robustly and openly over after-work drinks or family dinners, in Facebook feeds and media comment sections. As far as social issues go abortion is perhaps our last taboo – something to only be talked about behind the closed door of a doctor’s office, or a friend’s living room in the confessional early morning hours; a heavy topic that lands on the table wrapped in timidity and apology.
The lack of open dialogue around abortion in New Zealand has provided both a source of frustration and inspiration for playwright Jodie Molloy. “[Abortion] is just something that no-one talks about – I’d like to think me and my friends are very open, out there people and even we struggle with it as a topic of conversation.” It’s a conversation that Molloy is hoping to stimulate with her upcoming production, The Voice in My Head, in which the issue of abortion unapologetically takes center stage.
The play – a monologue performed by local actress and writer, Natalie Medlock – uses five character stories to explore the subject of abortion from historical and future perspectives – pointedly leaving out the present view so as to give the audience the opportunity to fill in that part for themselves; to reflect on how far we’ve come (or haven’t) and how far we might go.
The idea for the play came to Molloy (a script and screenwriter whose previous writing credits include The Jaquie Brown Diaries and Agent Anna) when she was in her first year of her Masters of Screenwriting at England’s Cambridge University. “I was doing a performance writing module and I just became really enthralled during the one or two days we were doing monologue. It reminded me of what I love about the form and just the intense nature of watching just an actor deliver a character.
“I was reading a lot of [English playwright and screenwriter] Alan Bennett and I thought to myself ‘I’d love to write that.’ Character is kind of my obsession, so monologue, in terms of dramatic performance, was a natural segue for me. It means that I can explore characters in a much longer form than I normally could with a screenplay.”
At the same time Molloy was discovering a love for monologue she was also reading up “with a fairly obsessive and high degree of passion” on New Zealand-born author Katherine Mansfield. Of particular interest was Mansfield’s oft-mythicised ‘hedonistic’ period, which allegedly included a barbiturate addiction, experimentation with lesbianism, and at least one abortion:
“There was this, ahh, alleged possibility that her mother came over from NZ and took her away to get rid of this pregnancy, and in thinking about that and thinking about what that must have been like for her experiencing this horrible situation – [I had] this twisted thought or feeling like I knew her from reading her work with such intensity. I wanted to sort of emulate that in my first monologue for school, and I knew as soon as I did that that I wanted to explore it and create some more characters that followed that theme, which is ‘what was and will be the experience of abortion in 20th and 21st century life?’”
In The Voice in My Head the experience is unpacked through five unique character monologues. With each monologue set on a train, the play promises to “take the audience on a journey through a spectrum of comedy and tragedy, moving in space and time from Victorian era Europe to mid-century Brooklyn, into the depths of WWII and to an imagined future in 2045.”
The character’s stories range from the purely fictional (“Nerida” – a teenager in ‘80s suburban Melbourne) to the borrowed-from-reality, such as the story of Gitta, who is loosely based on Dr Gisella Perl – an obstetrician who was imprisoned in Aushwtiz and subsequently performed hundreds of secret abortions on pregnant prisoners, who, together with their unborn children, would have otherwise certainly experienced unspeakable horrors at the hands of Nazi doctors. These stories unflinchingly explore themes of morality, motherhood, relationships and bioethics.
Although Molloy stresses that the play does not take a set political position on abortion (describing it instead as “pro-voice”), she herself speaks passionately about the “utterly tragic” state of abortion law in New Zealand:
“One in four women in New Zealand have an abortion, yet our law legislates still on the side of pro-life because it requires women to really perjure themselves. If women have to sign a form saying they’re mentally incapable of having a baby – that is not giving them agency. The law essentially comes from a place of judgment, which I think is a totally wrong position to be in in 2016.”
Molloy hopes that by at least bringing the topic to the fore, she can encourage the audience – whether pro or anti-choice – to start talking about it, and that this in turn will spark wider debate about whether our current laws are befitting of a country that prides itself on progress, especially for women;
“We’re the first country to give women the vote – why can’t we take a modern approach to this? People could still be ‘pro-life’ – you’re entitled to those thoughts and opinions but you have no right to inflict them in practice on anyone else. I would like to see the law give the ultimate right to the person whose body it is and I think we (women) have earned that right.”
“One of the best outcomes I could hope for [from the play] would be that amongst one of the school groups coming along there’s a young girl who wants to grow up to become a lawyer… and she sees the show and goes ‘hang on, that law doesn’t really work…it’s not really right’ and decides that her mission will be to open that discussion and question the status quo.”
‘The Voice in My Head’ opens tonight at the Basement Theatre in Auckland and runs until June 4. Tickets can be purchased here.