Tuesday, 2nd May 2023 at Southwark Playhouse, London.
Reviewer: Emma Dorfman
Note: mild spoilers ahead!
All too often, when we introduce both the personal and the political into a piece of theatre, it can come across as self-serving and undeniably cringe-worthy. Blanket Ban, without a doubt, is not that show. Through this verbatim 2-hander dark dramedy, Davinia Hamilton and Marta Vella use a single small island nation, Malta, as a lens through which we examine an undeniably controversial and dangerous issue: abortion.
Malta is one of the most socially progressive nations out there, according to our narrators, Davinia and Marta. It ranks high in terms of trans rights and queer rights, university is free (though Davinia and Marta admit cheekily, there’s only one), and yet, there is a near all-out ban on abortion. Using verbatim interviews and personal experiences of growing up as women in their home country, Hamilton and Vella strike a careful balance between an entertaining and engaging piece and a piece that is a true call to action.
Crucial to this balance is the smooth introduction of the very taboo topic of abortion. From the very beginning, the piece reads as a physical, near-slapstick comedy. Hamilton and Vella feed off of one another with impeccable timing, exchanging ripostes about Malta and the UK. These two, we learned, met only after they left Malta to live in London. Their fathers were both ex-colleagues and, by pure coincidence, Davinia and Marta connected and hit it off.
They love Malta, and you can feel their love for their home country (“We go out of our way to take care of one another,” they say of the Maltese people towards the end of the show), but you’re also keenly aware of what’s to come. Through a raucous introduction, Davinia and Marta are able to disguise the issue and get us to fully consider the country in front of us before moving to criticism and takedowns.
As they segue into the world of verbatim testimony, which is comprised of a mix of recorded video of actual subjects (projections courtesy of Tom Fitch) and quite a few clever skits (hilariously directed by Sam Edmunds and Vikesh Godhwani), we are introduced to the unique case studies that make the blanket ban so dangerous and, in many cases, deadly.
Beautiful visual moments (elaborately designed by Isabella Van Braeckel and Holly Ellis) are interwoven throughout, allowing for moments of reflection on the very meaty issues discussed. One scene that stands out, in particular, is when Marta is swimming under a projected sea. She dons a blue cape, immersing herself further in the water. The stage blocks underneath support her as she slowly moves her limbs as if swimming toward something. She imagines why she must feel so at home in the sea. Is it simply because she is Maltese? Is it because she has a memory of life before life (in the womb)?
Whilst there are moments of peaceful contemplation and reflection scattered throughout the piece, of course, no one can have political theatre without an uprising. Many a show I have seen unravel because of this need to disturb the piece, and once again, Blanket Ban is not that show.
After showing us testimonial after testimonial, Davinia shares how she feels about the blanket ban transitioning into access to abortion only when the mother’s life is at stake. She ends with a triumphant, “Does that seem right to you?” It was at this point that I thought, well… no, but I’m also not sure if anyone in the audience would disagree with you on that point. If the piece were to continue in this vein, all of the careful work done thus far might have unraveled. Instead, Davinia and Marta spool everything back up tightly, allowing for time to fully reflect on their conflicting feelings towards their home country and its wacky politics. But it still is home, and that certainly has to mean something.
Blanket Ban is at Southwark Playhouse until May 20th 2023 – you can find more information and tickets here.
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