Review: Blanket Ban, Southwark Playhouse ★★★★☆

by Christopher Day.

The decision by the USA’s Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs Wade was met with horror by many on this side of the Atlantic. But did you know that one country far closer to home, inside the EU, still has a blanket ban on abortion, including when the mother’s life is at risk or when the pregnancy has been caused by rape?

Davinia Hamilton and Marta Vella are both from Malta, the country with that blanket ban, and want to change things – so they’ve made and perform in this openly polemical ‘docu-play’, in the hope that they can play a small part in overturning Malta’s abortion laws.

It will be a challenge, with a 2022 survey suggesting that 64 per cent of men and 59 per cent of women in Malta remain supportive of a blanket ban on abortion. Yet small steps have been taken since this production was staged at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, with the Maltese government proposing to allow abortion when the mother’s life is at risk.

But Hamilton and Vella want more than that. They’ve spoken to countless Maltese women (and tourists to Malta too), from all walks of life, hearing their experiences of being unable to access legal and safe abortions in their own country. Their desperation, especially during the pandemic when travelling for an abortion elsewhere was far more difficult, can be chilling at times, and so are the wider consequences of the ban. Many of these women did not feel able to tell their partners or families about their abortions. One of Hamilton and Vella’s interviewees only told their husband of decades about her abortion the night before she was interviewed. Another later found out that her mother had had an abortion herself when she was younger, and wished she had felt able to confide in her sooner.

The testimony from these women is relayed in a number of ways – through audio tracks, through projection onto a small screen at the centre of the minimalist yet colourful set, or through the performer’s acting. Hamilton and Vella flit between their own biographies as Maltese women who love their country – and its pastizzi pastries – but refuse to accept the current state of play on abortion.

Their patriotism makes this a stronger play, one that helps you understand more about Malta as a country, and one which confounds the expectations some may have of pro-abortion campaigners. It’s common to criticise this kind of play for preaching to the converted, but the mash-up of reactions to their Edinburgh Fringe run displayed here shows that this has reached beyond that audience in Malta.

We get an insight into why Malta remains so anti-abortion – their ancient temples dedicated to the Mother Goddess, and the adoration for the Virgin Mary in a country where 82 per cent identify as Roman Catholic. But more exploration of this would be even more interesting – why, for example, are Malta’s laws so different to Italy’s when more than 79 per cent of Italians identify as Roman Catholic too?

Slight niggles aside, this play is a searing indictment of a country’s treatment of pregnant women. Whatever your own views on abortion, you will find this hard-hitting drama gripping and thought-provoking. Even those who disagree with Hamilton and Vella will find something to admire in their commitment to the pro-choice cause, and the eloquence with which they argue their case – with the help of other Maltese women – could help change minds.

Blanket Ban is at Southwark Playhouse until 20 May

Christopher Day is currently studying for a PhD in modern British history at the University of Westminster. He enjoys watching theatre, reading literature and following Stevenage FC. You can find him on Twitter @ChrisDay96.