Interview: Marta Vella on Blanket Ban, ‘It isn’t only a piece of theatre’

Following its hit run at Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, theatre makers and activists Davinia Hamilton and Marta Vella bring their production about Maltese reproductive rights to Southwark Playhouse next month.

The play, which was first performed as part of New Diorama and Underbelly’s Untapped Award, combines the artists’ lived experience with interviews, stories and video footage of Maltese women with experience of the country’s blanket ban on abortion. Its Edinburgh run saw it shortlisted for the Popcorn Writing Award and the Sit Up Award.

As Hamilton and Vella gear up to bring the show to London, we heard from Vella about the game-changing transfer to Southwark Playhouse and what they hope audiences will take away from the show.

Davinia Hamilton (left) and Marta Vella (right)

Q&A with Marta Vella

What can you tell us about Blanket Ban?

Blanket Ban is a show which explores the complete ban on abortion in Malta. In the show we attempt to investigate why a progressing country that has just recently legalised cannabis and trailblazing queer rights holds some the strictest abortion laws in the world. Based on three years’ worth of interviews with key players of the debate such as doctors, lawyers, activists and people who had illegal abortions, we delve into the devastating consequences of this ban and what it means for women and pregnant people in Malta.

What do you hope people take away from the evening?

Blanket Ban isn’t only a piece of theatre, it’s a cautionary tale and a call to action. With the reversal of Roe vs Wade and a general rise in a far right mentality, we hope our audiences leave the show with a heightened awareness of how vulnerable reproductive rights are and how easily they can be taken away. We cannot take anything for granted, the fight is still on.

Has being both writers and performers for the work allowed you more freedom in how you approached the topic?

In a sense, yes. When we set out to do Blanket Ban we had no real plan on how we wanted the work to turn out. We wanted to shed light on the abortion ban in our home country and investigate why there’s such resistance on this one issue in an otherwise very progressive country.

When the pandemic hit, the only way we could continue working on the show was to conduct our interviews through Zoom. That decision really shaped the direction of the play. With a much wider reach we ended up with so much footage and so many testimonies. This was a game-changer not just for the show but for us too. That’s when we took the decision to write our journey of making the play into the show. With how the work has turned out, one can say it is way more personal than we had ever imagined it would be.

What was it like performing a play at Edinburgh Fringe Festival and how does it feel to be now taking it to the Southwark Playhouse?

To perform at the Edinburgh Fringe festival after a two year hiatus was really special. With so many shows on, we felt really lucky to have been sold out almost every night. The reactions we had from audiences was really raw and beautiful. Almost after every show, women from the audience came up to us to speak about their own experiences. I can’t really put into words what it felt like to know that they were able to confide in us. Our four-week run at the Southwark Playhouse presented us with an opportunity to make a show that doesn’t come with Fringe constraints; the one hour slot, daily get-in and get-out which in many ways is a game changer. We were able to develop the script, expand some sections and insert additions which we weren’t able to in the first run. The show is also being re-designed and upscaled which is really exciting. We’re very, very grateful.

What was it like being shortlisted for the Popcorn Writing Award and the Sit Up Award?

It was a great honour to be shortlisted amongst amazing writers who created phenomenal shows. This is our first co-writing venture and any recognition is incredibly humbling.

Finally, how would you describe Blanket Ban to someone considering buying a ticket?

Blanket Ban is an evening of high-energy entertainment and storytelling. The show is carefully curated with moments of humour which provide relief from a very harrowing topic. The show will hopefully move you, provoke you and leave you feeling with a sense of hope.

Blanket Ban is at Southwark Playhouse from 25 April to 20 May