Theatre review: The Voice In My Head, Basement Theatre

By Janet McAllister

1 comment
Natalie Medlock stars in The Voice in my Head.
Natalie Medlock stars in The Voice in my Head.

It is excruciatingly rare for abortion to feature as a storyline in Auckland theatre, let alone a whole show about it, so Jodie Molloy's general choice of subject for these five monologues is both welcome and commercially brave.

However, the resulting treatment of this sensitive issue is problematically unbalanced. Four of the five stories - settings range from 19th century England to a sci-fi future - feature women who are forced to have abortions by mothers, boyfriends, doctors (due to severe foetus abnormalities) or Nazis. As a result, they are led to despair; the fifth story is about a woman who is despairing already.

Read more: Theatre: Talk about taboo

It's surprising to find coerced and unwanted abortion is virtually the only issue discussed in the multi-story show; huge gaps include the historic (and, in some places, contemporary) near-impossibility of obtaining an abortion, and the widespread and often dire consequences of making abortion illegal.

These issues are not mentioned at all.

Still, Natalie Medlock does a superb job of characterising the five women and, while the play is over-long for a solo act, she holds our attention with her excellent enunciation and expressive storytelling. Working-class stereotypes provide cheap humour, but the different language that Molloy gives each character is fabulous, particularly the wonderful vocabulary of the Katherine Mansfield type (who, perplexingly, is given a Victorian adulthood). On its own, each vignette is polished and well-structured.

Paul Casserly's video images, cleverly glimpsed through the tram windows of Daniel Williams' set, provide intriguing punctuation between monologues.

But one character calls a woman who has a termination a "murderer"; another, who has performed abortions, says "my hands are dirty". Such stories and characters do have a place onstage, but if no alternative attitudes are presented alongside them - someone for whom an abortion is a relief, for example - the resulting discussion is lopsided. Instead of giving us five voices, The Voice In My Head gives us only one and that one voice is seriously judgmental.

* The submitted review included an acknowledgement that one abortion was due to "severe foetus abnormalities" but this was omitted in the printed version.

Playwright Jodie Molloy replies:

I find Janet McAllister's review of my work The Voice in My Head concerning and disappointing. Namely, because I believe she has chosen to form her opinions based not on the factual accuracies of the characters she met during the monologue series, but pejorative assumptions she brought with her into the theatre.

She has accused me of peddling women who were "forced or coerced" into abortion by Nazis, doctors, boyfriends and mothers. Such a cursory paragraph alleges, quite simply, an untruth. Only one character in this specifically constructed series is taken to have a forced abortion for societal reasons at the turn of the century. Another woman, a 1950s housewife, chooses to go and have an illegal procedure as she's not interested in having more children. Another character is a German Jew in a concentration camp who liberates and frees women and their children from torture by choosing to perform abortions in secret, citing a change in her personal beliefs to do so.

The next is a heartbreakingly sad character who's left with no choice to terminate a very wanted child, based on medical grounds. No boyfriend, no doctor, nobody coerces her into it. To live, she must do this. These other people in her life simply had opinions. Finally, the futuristic character, the one Janet McAllister cites using some out-of-context dialogue "she wasn't such a bad murderer" after all, comes from a woman whose existence stems from a petri dish; a woman who feels she has been robbed of her mother and is simply a sum result of a commodified, scientific world. It's a look at the results and impacts of what we can do and how far-reaching this issue is. This character is just a girl, with no mother and no connection to her past.

In all drama, particularly monologues, characters are allowed to have a different opinion to us. It does not make them or the playwright "judgmental". To have created an impression that I have created something lopsided or unbalanced assumed I wasn't conscious of what I was doing or creating in the first place.

In the already observed "longer-than-normal solo" show, I had a limited amount of time to examine what I wanted to be less pedestrian and common ways of looking at the issue of abortion. To decide I have somehow made omissions is to suggest there was a pre-existing framework of obligation to this issue in the first place.

I did not promise a historical look at abortion; I made no promises to my audience other than that the thematic narrative thread of these works was that they were monologues. The form itself demands nothing more than truth, crafted writing, authenticity and powerful performance.

The review acknowledged that Natalie Medlock is amazing, that my writing is "fabulous" and the set and AV are wonderful but there is no focus on these features. The focus of the review is on the idea that I, as a writer, somehow missed information and certain points and have made a judgment towards women and/or the subject.

It's a rather preposterous notion given I paid for this work - this conversation - and our publicly stated intention in the press since day one, was to start conversation that may prompt us to consider law reform. We have Q and As with political parties, leaders and young women seeing the show.

I am the last person on earth who has judgment for any woman, man or family who may choose to discontinue a pregnancy. I have the opposite. To summon failure upon a work is one thing, but it must be rooted in truth. The review's take on these characters came from, I believe, not listening to the show or considering their stories with any degree of complexity.

Art is free from needing to be even or democratic; if required, it can be polemic or whatever the artist wants it to be. To suggest that a Jewish character who felt that, by terminating the lives of children under horrific circumstances, isn't entitled to feel for a moment she has "dirty hands" is a disgrace. What was not explained is that the character was also unapologetic for what she had done because "their children didn't deserve to be made into soap for Ayran laundry." This wasn't a woman forced to do anything other than take on a brave and new kind of feminism when it was circumstantially required.

I have had an overwhelming response to this play since it opened. Beautiful, amazing stories and a lot of them from men. This show isn't about judgment; it's about loss, grief, conflict and missed chances at motherhood.

We are all entitled to have our own feelings in this conversation, and to be honest, I think the reviewer was listening to the voice in her own head, not the women or lives she saw on stage. I want New Zealand women to be able to be legally autonomous in making decisions around their own body. Let's start focusing on the people behind the procedure, embracing all the feelings that go with it.

I am an ardent believer in the power and the role of the critic. I have immense respect for those who take the time to appreciate art and then dissect it for the greater good not just for the audience but the artist himself. The pursuit of excellence should be a goal for all of us aiming to make work for consumption.

What: The Voice in my Head
Where & when: Basement Theatre, until June 4

Have you seen the show? Do you agree with this review?
Leave a comment below.

- NZ Herald

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