A Shameful State
Aoife Murray, 19, from a council estate in west Belfast, had sex without a condom over Christmas. Her boyfriend, Killian, promised to pull out. He didn’t. You can guess the rest. Except Aoife doesn’t want a child. She has plans, albeit vague ones, of getting out of the estate and living her life, whatever that life might look like. What it doesn’t look like is living the life her mother lives, staying with Killian, or dying like her Aunt Róisín. But abortions are illegal in Belfast. If she wants one she’ll have to travel abroad. In Rachel Trezise’s "Cotton Fingers" one girl’s journey from Belfast to Wales becomes her rite of passage to womanhood and activism. If initial appearances suggest echoes of Ireland of the all too recent past, “Cotton Fingers’” context throws up a number of distinct differences. Enough that if it makes a sympathetic case for access to abortion for women in Northern Ireland, dramatically it doesn’t deliver quite as well. Yet that’s handsomely compensated by an exceptional one woman performance courtesy of a phenomenally impressive Amy Molloy.
Under Julia Thomas’s taut direction, Trezise’s script, commissioned as one of five monologues written to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS, is cleverly unpacked and made deeply engaging, despite some fundamental issues. Not least of which is Trezise frequently setting up what’s about to happen — pregnancy, a possible abortion, a troubled journey home — before circling back to describe the events in detail. Events whose outcome we already know and which aren’t always made richer by way of being revisited. Indeed, "Cotton Fingers" proves far more compelling when events are allowed unfold. More problematic, however, are its reduced stakes. Works relating to Irish women seeking abortions prior to the Eight being repealed centred on women who were denied all access to abortion. But Aoife isn’t being denied in that same way. She has access, outside of Belfast but inside the UK, and abortion is free, as are her travel costs. While it's politically unacceptable that any woman should have to travel for an abortion, dramatically the stakes become considerably less once finance free abortion is readily accessible. Something Trezise seems conscious of, and attempts to address by including stories of women who didn’t have access before the law changed, as well providing a vivid description of Aoife’s heart rending experiences which she undergoes alone for fear of shame.
All of which is beautifully conveyed by Amy Molloy, some projection issues aside, whose tough as nails Aoife’s hard exterior conceals a frightened child underneath. Wonderfully supported by an uncredited costume designer whose sports day, school uniform suggests innocence as well as youthfulness. Under Thomas’s direction, Aoife talks and moves at a world weary pace that belies her age, endlessly moving with a restlessly energy, as if trying to find the perfect arrangement for the stage, her life, herself. Carl Davies' minimalist wall designed set, with its four linked chairs and snow scattered surface, are constantly reformed and transformed by Joe Fletcher’s breathtaking light design. Tasha Taylor Johnson’s sound design, which often serves to break up rather than inform proceedings, proves to be an opportunity missed, for there’s more than enough on show to hint of some serious promise left unrealised.
Arriving so soon after the referendum, "Cotton Fingers" might not resonate with the same intensity for Southern audiences given its different context and conditions. But Molloy ensures that even if the political isn’t as powerfully engaging, the personal is made deeply so. For, in the end, "Cotton Fingers" isn’t concerned with some abstract idea of abortion, but with the concrete reality of women denied the right to choose what they want to happen to their own bodies. And in the own countries. The first step is to remove the stigma of shame that engulfs the conversation surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland. The next is to get it back onto the political agenda despite ongoing concerns with Brexit. Points "Cotton Fingers" hammers home with some considerable power.
"Cotton Fingers" by Rachel Trezise, produced by National Theatre Wales, runs at The Samuel Beckett Theatre until May 31 before transferring to The Mermaid Arts Centre for June 1.