Malta remains one of the last remaining countries in the world where abortion is outlawed under any circumstances. But this does not mean it is not part of our reality. HERMAN GRECH talks to PIA ZAMMIT about his upcoming play De-terminated, and how he hopes these real-life experiences will spark a discussion.
It’s a tough one this. Any mention of the ‘A’ word can swiftly turn a family dinner into an episode of Xarabank. However, the fact remains that Malta is one of the last remaining countries in the world where abortion is outlawed under any circumstance. Consequently, it is only responsible of us as a country to at least be discussing what abortion is, and what the facts are, instead of sticking our fingers in our ears and hoping it will all go away.
One person who may be crucial in spearheading this debate is theatre director, journalist and new playwright, Herman Grech.
Last year Herman conducted a series of interviews with different people (all Maltese, bar one) who spoke about their different abortion experiences and views. He then turned them into a theatre script – De-terminated – which talks about the characters’ different perspectives (be they pro-choice or anti-abortion). The play, which emphatically does not take sides, is set in Malta and tackles the issues of intolerance, fear, concern and frustration.
I asked Herman; why? Why choose to write this play?These days, when our discourse is dictated by our Facebook bubble, we refuse to listen to different points of views. The narrative of De-terminated is ‘let’s try to stop shouting the other side down’
"It was a difficult call to make,” he says. “In the other ‘serious’ plays I directed, I tackled the subject of politics and incarceration (Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me), terrorism (The Lockerbie Bomber) and migration (Lampedusa). I wanted to specifically tackle a difficult subject which would resonate with a Maltese audience. Apart from politics and migration, abortion is the one incendiary subject which really gets the Maltese hot under the collar.
"I did read abortion-related plays but I found most slanted heavily towards one side. And, of course, none could capture the characteristics of the Maltese people. So I thought, why not write my own?
"I wanted to find out if the issue of abortion could ever be discussed without name-calling and hysteria. These days, when our discourse is dictated by our Facebook bubble, we refuse to listen to different points of views. The narrative of De-terminated is ‘let’s try to stop shouting the other side down’ and engage in discussion."
The abortion issue hasn’t ever been thoroughly tackled on the Maltese theatre stage and Herman adds that he approached it specifically from a narrative perspective, because: “you might choose to disagree with someone’s views/the way someone dealt with the issue – but you can't say it didn’t happen. I have five characters telling their own story, while two others play the pro-choice and anti-abortion activists.
"It wasn't as difficult a task as I’d have imagined finding people willing to tell their stories”, he tells me.
I guess it helps that Herman is a “veteran journalist” (his quote!). He feels that winning the interviewees’ trust was the most difficult task, however once word got around that he was writing a play about abortion, people started approaching him wanting to tell their stories. I wondered if there were any recurrent themes with the Maltese interviewees.
"There was a lot of pent-up anger and frustration - from both sides. I faced women who were raped and had barely spoken to anybody about their abortion experience because they could face prosecution and be ostracised by society. I met this most wonderful man who regretted putting his partner through an abortion but is also equally frustrated that he cannot speak out openly. I have enough interview material to write a sequel.” He adds wryly.
Herman, an editor with Times of Malta, feels that art, and especially theatre, sometimes has the potentially to scream louder than real-life episodes.
"When you've sat down and engaged in watching actors play out a political or social script, you can absorb the narrative more thoroughly than you would reading a news item on a mobile phone. Especially in this day and age, where we all have the attention span of a fly.”
Herman repeats that his over-riding wish throughout this whole process is that we "start to try to listen to each other before we label everyone who disagrees with our views as ‘church crusaders’ or ‘baby killers’.”
This fuelled his determination (yes, I used the word intentionally!) to get the script written and cast. I asked him how he went about converting the interviews into a theatre script.
"I was lucky because I ended up getting seven very different perspectives, and the script almost wrote itself. I carried out the interviews towards the end of 2017, promised myself that I would finish the transcripts by New Year’s Eve, and then decided to take days off work to write, walk, write, walk, and keep writing until I had a semblance of a script... But I also knew it would be work in progress. I always work very closely with the actors and I demand their input on a script, so I’m still making changes as we go along to make it as relevant as possible.”
De-terminated features a star-studded cast with Charlotte Grech, Isabel Warrington, Jo Caruana, Marta Vella, Jes Camilleri and Alan Paris on board. I asked Herman if there were any particular considerations, other than sheer talent, when he was casting this play.
“Directors won't admit this,” he says with a chuckle.
"But, often, they’re reading a part with someone already in mind. In this case, as I was carrying out the interviews, I was telling myself that Alan would be perfect for this role. Or that Isabel has the perfect accent for this part. I’m lucky to have landed six of the best actors in Malta. In a play like this you simply can’t afford to have a weak link."
Back in 2002, when FM productions had staged The Vagina Monologues, I remember that poor Chris Gatt, the director, had barely any chance to get a word in edgeways. All six actresses (me included) were so quick to shoot him down at almost every turn. “You’re not a woman – you can’t understand,” became our mantra, half-jokingly. I ask Herman whether he’s experiencing the same amount of shoot-downs?
“Yes!” he promptly replies. “As you can imagine, rehearsals are sparking some very interesting debates. However, I wanted to include three male characters in the play (Alan Paris is playing two roles) because I didn’t want the play to become just a rallying cry for women. There are two people between the sheets and the impact of whether one proceeds with a pregnancy can sometimes have a major impact on the man. What’s interesting is the way it almost always kick-starts a debate in social circles whenever someone mentions a play about abortion – from the standard “is abortion ever justified?” to “are you crazy to even go there?”
The set up is quite similar to The Vagina Monologues, in that the setting is very stripped back.
"I love the intimate staging of Spazju Kreattiv, where the actors can literally dialogue with the audience members.”
De-Terminated is a co-production of Spazju Kreattiv and is supported by the Malta Arts Fund. It will be performed from the 19th till the 21st and the 26th till the 28th of October at the Spazju Kreattiv Theatre. The production includes a sound installation by Yasmin Kuymizakis.
The feature first appeared in the September issue of Circle magazine
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