When I tell people I've written a comedy about abortion, they often respond with the kind of shrill, nervous laughter normally reserved for first dates or say 'oh' and stare intently at their shoes. When I tell them that the play is based on my own experience of abortion, they become visibly paralysed with awkwardness. This isn't necessarily an indication that they disapprove; in many of these cases my uncomfortable listeners are open-minded left-wingers with a penchant for naughty comedy. It's just that, as a topic of conversation, abortion remains something of a taboo. It's the routine medical procedure that dare not speak its name. If anything, this pervasive squeamishness only serves to highlight the main issue we're tackling with the play; the silence surrounding abortions.
As a society, we're beginning to make progress in this area. The Irish referendum to repeal the eighth amendment has meant that abortions are being discussed openly in the mainstream media, as women open up about their experiences to effect political change. When abortion comes up on the Jeremy Vine show, with a fierce reproductive rights debate scheduled somewhere between Popmaster and a segment from the vicar off Gogglebox, you know the issue has gone beyond a core group of campaigners and has found its way into the larger public consciousness. More than ever, women are speaking out and taking ownership of their bodies, and it is far more common today to see this reflected in film and theatre than it was even five years ago.
With so many fearless women using art to challenge the status quo, this feels like the right time and cultural climate to be making feminist theatre. There is a lot of wonderful work emerging at the moment with feminism at its core, especially comedy, which is helping to tackle some of the negative stereotypes about humourless feminists. Laughter is a powerful tool, and I find that the pun is mightier than the sword.
The thing which got me through the rather lonely experience of having an abortion was maintaining a sense of humour about it, making jokes which were irreverent and probably inappropriate, although precisely who's sense of propriety they would have offended I'm not sure. I was lucky enough to have friends and family who supported my decision to have an abortion and laughed along with me. Babygirl, the character in the play, doesn't have that support network. She's newly arrived at university and hasn't had a chance to form any close friendships yet. Her upbringing is staunchly Catholic, so telling her family isn't an option either. I wanted to explore what the experience of abortion would be like for someone who is going through it completely alone, feeling like they don't have anyone to confide in, because that's the reality for a lot of women. Babygirl's only source of comfort is a flippant internal monologue and a whole lot of vodka.
In many ways the play is a coming of age story. Babygirl is a relatively normal eighteen-year-old. She goes through all the usual struggles of finding her identity, exploring her sexuality, searching for independence, learning to flirt; but on top of all this she has the added pressure of an unwanted pregnancy. This isn't a particularly unusual situation either. Statistics from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service tell us that one in three British women will have an abortion at some point in their lives. What is more unusual is hearing anyone tell you they've had an abortion, which is really what Babygirl has difficulty with. At one point in the play she says 'So where are all these women? If so many women have had abortions why do I feel so alone?' This is pretty much the main question we hope the play will address.
So far, we've had a really encouraging response. We've had a lot of people approach us after performances to talk about their own experience of abortion, and there is a palpable sense of relief which comes from being able to discuss it. One of the functions of theatre is to allow audiences to see their own feelings represented on stage and give them an opportunity to realise they are not alone. There are, in fact, millions of us feeling the same way, keeping our stiff-upper-lips firmly sealed until it feels safe to open up. It hasn't just been women either. We've had an amazing response to the play from male audience members, despite the dearth of male characters. And why not? Why shouldn't a story about a woman be compelling for everyone?
We didn't want to create a piece which only appeals to a narrow section of society. Part of our ethos as a company is to tell untold stories to as wide an audience as possible. Saying that, we did initially wonder how the play would be received by our more socially conservative audience members. Just before a performance in Birmingham, our director, Holly Bond, came backstage and said, 'Don't panic, but there is a vicar sitting in the front row.' I thought about the masturbation jokes, the lesbian romance, and the general irreverence with which we approach one of the most controversial issues in Christian doctrine. I was definitely panicking. At the end of the show, however, the aforementioned vicar came over to me with a glass of wine, chuckling good-naturedly, and said 'Well done, that was hilarious!' Turns out she'd been a midwife, was an advocate for LGBTQ rights within the Church, and loved a blue joke.
Wonderbox, our female-led theatre company, will be performing A Womb of One's Own at the King's Head, a theatre renowned for challenging content, which we hope will be a great home for it for this run. As a company we've learnt so much from creating this play, and it has a fairly special place in our collective heart. Ironically, for a play about abortion, I now frequently refer to it as my 'baby'. I will have a kind of maternal pride and trepidation when it goes in front of the King's Head audience. If I spot a vicar in the front row this time, I'll assume they're up for a good laugh.
A WOMB OF ONE’S OWN by Claire Rammelkamp
King’s Head Theatre
17 – 21 July 2018
Babygirl is eighteen, a student, and has just discovered SEX – in spite of her strict Catholic upbringing by two crotchety old women. Having rapidly disposed of her virginity, she sets out to find something a little more satisfying. But before she can manage it, she discovers she’s Up the proverbial Duff. We follow her journey of self and sexual discovery as she struggles with embarrassing sexual mishaps, desperate attempts to be cool, uncertain religious beliefs and the weight of a difficult choice.
In this highly-energetic and fast-paced production from Wonderbox, four performers bring Babygirl to life, revealing different aspects of her personality and an absurd cast of characters. Using humour, sensitivity and storytelling, A Womb of One’s Own explores the emotional roller coaster that is unwanted pregnancy.