Theatre: Talk about taboo

One in four Kiwi women have had or will have an abortion. Yet it's an issue that remains hidden, writes Dionne Christian.
Natalie Medlock stars in The Voice in my Head.
Natalie Medlock stars in The Voice in my Head.

The Voice in my Head could be one of the most controversial theatre productions seen in Auckland this year, but its writer and solo performer want us to talk more openly about the issues it explores.

Presented as a series of monologues, The Voice in my Head is about abortion.

Actor Natalie Medlock portrays five women who tell their stories and, by doing so, offer varying and often-not-explored perspectives on the taboo topic. It moves from Victorian-era Europe to mid-century Brooklyn, into World War II and from modern Melbourne to an imagined future in 2045.

Each monologue, based on extensive reading and talking to women who have had abortions, considers the character's perceptions and experience of relationships, motherhood, loss and morality. The experience of loss the women face before or after having an abortion binds the stories, while taking a historical perspective provides a chance to see how far society has - or hasn't - come in treating the subject.

"Abortion remains a taboo subject, but a staggering number of New Zealand women - something like one in four - have had or will have an abortion," says writer Jodie Molloy. "Those numbers seem extraordinary especially given that no one talks about the experience. I don't think we've been socialised to have the types of conversations the subject warrants, but I think it's one subject we have an obligation to talk about."

Molloy, one of the writers of TV's The Jaquie Brown Diaries, acknowledges she is better known for writing comedy.

"For a long time, I have been making excuses about making work that could be considered polemic," she says. "Working in comedy has been a safe place, one that requires a different set of rules, and I don't have to expose myself or my ideology, call upon or expose my own emotional landscape to curry the favour of an audience.

"I feel impelled now to make work that doesn't apologise nor explain or justify its presence. The truth is often ugly and it's in the disclosure of our fears and secrets in safe places, like theatre or cinema, we can exhale and perhaps not feel so 'alone'. I think we seek out art to explain ourselves and make sense of our own conundrums both large and small."

She says the work doesn't make a political statement and is intended to encourage dialogue. She hopes the audience - "irrespective of personal dogma" - can reflect on and respect the journey each character takes.

Molloy is so committed to having more female voices heard in theatre, she has self-funded The Voice in my Head. She developed the idea while completing her Masters of Studies in Creative Writing at Cambridge University in England.

It is a first in what she hopes will be a long-standing, annual series of monologue work, each instalment featuring a different female issue. After its Basement season, the play has its international premiere at the prestigious Corpus Playroom at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge next month.

Medlock believes the play is one of the most challenging she has been involved with but, like Molloy, wants the subject of abortion more thoroughly discussed. "I wanted to do it because Jodie's a friend, I loved the script and I'm passionate about getting female stories on stage," she says.

"I'm daunted and it's going to be huge challenge for me because I am portraying different characters - and there are a lot of lines to learn - but also in terms of stamina and dealing with the emotive issues it raises.

"There's a lot of complexity here, a lot about loss."

Medlock, known for TV appearances on Shortland Street and The Almighty Johnsons, says a number of women who've heard she's working on a play about abortion have contacted her to share their stories.

She is surprised by the range of reactions which follow such event, saying it becomes a defining moment in the lives of some but not so much for others. "But a lot of people have expressed gratitude that this issue is being dialogued."

Molloy's business partner Paul Casserly - the duo run TV production company Perendale Productions with media personality Jeremy Wells - is providing audio-visual to frame each monologue, and musician Paul McLaney is designing the sound.

It was a deliberate decision not to have a contemporary story, but to look to the future for what might be.

"New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the vote; it would be wonderful to think we could lead the world in abortion law reform."

Performance

What: The Voice in my Head - a monologue series

Where & when: Basement Theatre, May 24-June 4

- Weekend magazine

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