'It feels like it should be an Irish writer tackling this subject' – Rachel Trezise on her play about a Belfast girl travelling to Wales for an abortion
Welsh writer Rachel Trezise tells Lynn Enright she hopes her new play about the hundreds of women from the North who cross the Irish Sea each year to have an NHS abortion will spark debate
The Welsh writer Rachel Trezise is fretting about her latest play, Cotton Fingers, arriving in Ireland. "It feels like I've dipped my pen in someone else's blood," she admits, when we meet in a rehearsal room in the National Theatre of Wales. "It feels like it should be an Irish writer tackling this subject. But it was sort of an accident."
Cotton Fingers is a one-woman show about a young woman travelling from Belfast to Cardiff to get an abortion. Trezise wrote it after the National Theatre of Wales commissioned five writers to make a new piece of work to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service (NHS). "I didn't want to do a nice 'the NHS saved my life' story," she admits. "So I thought I would do something on abortion - and that very week, the NHS had started funding abortions for Northern Irish women if they travelled over."
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The monologue tells the story of Aoife, a young, working-class Catholic woman who finds herself alone in a Cardiff abortion clinic, after making the type of journey that more than 900 real-life Northern Irish women make each year.
"I wanted to write about women caring for each other in the NHS," says Trezise. "I was thinking about nurses and the silent pact that women have where things are implicitly understood. And that linked in with how there had been generations of Northern Irish women who had had abortions but had never told their daughter or their granddaughter - how all these women had to go through it alone."
So, even though Trezise isn't Northern Irish, her project ended up being about that part of the United Kingdom that is so often overlooked - in art, in the media, in politics.
The 40-year-old had visited Belfast only once before, back in the late 1990s, when she was studying in Limerick as part of an exchange programme with her Welsh university. At the time, Ireland's conservatism had shocked her.
"When I went to Limerick, I realised that divorce had only been legal for two years. I thought, 'What is this place?'" she recalls. "I'd open up Elle magazine and all the abortion information had been scratched out at the back."
Twenty years on, she relied on her memories of that time as well as newspaper reports to write a play that is deeply moving and unapologetically political. There is one line in the piece that she took directly from a report she read about Northern Irish women travelling for terminations: "Rich people have abortions. Poor people have to have kids." She wanted to explore how this is an issue that intersects with class. "It's more difficult for working-class women," she says plainly.
Trezise grew up "very poor, very working-class" in the Rhondda Valley, a part of South Wales that was devastated by the collapse of the mining industry. Her mother, who worked as a cleaner, brought her up "mostly by herself". Trezise was abused by a stepfather, an ordeal that informed her debut novel, In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl, published when she was just 24. She had grown up in a house without any books and she didn't see a play until she was an adult and had become a well-respected novelist. But she had always loved reading at school and was particularly moved when she studied Maya Angelou's memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. "It was the first book I ever read about sexual abuse. I thought, 'Oh somebody has written about it. Maybe I can write about it'."
Her second book, a collection of short stories called Fresh Apples won the Dylan Thomas Prize, which at the time was worth £60,000. It opened doors, with London publishers calling and theatres commissioning her to write plays. She never left Wales, however, and she and her welder husband live in the same area in which she grew up. She writes every day from 6am to 4pm, taking a half-hour break to eat her lunch in front of a daily BBC politics show. To help pay the bills, she takes on occasional editing and teaching work.
Trezise, like almost everyone else, has been won over by the Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls and sees its prominence as almost serendipitous. "Weirdly, when I started writing Cotton Fingers, the first series of Derry Girls was airing," she says. "And I thought that was strange - because usually there's very little about Northern Ireland."
She thinks Derry Girls is doing a great job of educating British people about the reality of life in 1990s Derry and wonders if Cotton Fingers can do something similar. "I am sure there are people in Britain who don't understand how many Irish women come over to have an abortion."
Louisa Harland, who plays Orla in Derry Girls, was cast in the first production of Cotton Fingers last summer and Amy Molloy takes on the role this year, when the show arrives in Dublin and Northern Ireland, just as we mark the one-year anniversary of the abortion referendum.
The referendum result is included in Cotton Fingers, with Aoife remarking: "The referendum in the South started us talking." There is a suggestion of hope but it quickly evaporates, as she realises that any momentum for change has been occluded by the problems that Brexit has wrought on Northern Ireland. "Maybe we're second-class citizens," Aoife thinks. "Maybe the Troubles never went away."
Trezise is saddened by what's happening on Northern Ireland - by the way it seems to have been neglected by British politicians, by the way women there still don't have access to safe and legal abortion. "Northern Ireland is stuck with the worst rights of all of us," she says.
Watching Cotton Fingers performed for the first time was a moving experience, she says. "I didn't realise how emotional it was until I first saw it performed on stage. I cried. I thought, 'Oh, you can't cry at your own work.' But I was looking around and other people were crying, too."
It is an undeniably affecting piece, a play that asks us to look at how far we've come while forcing us to acknowledge that there is significant work to be done. Trezise is a modest person, almost timid in her responses, and she is circumspect when asked what Cotton Fingers can do to encourage change in Northern Ireland.
"I can't say categorically that theatre does help but you would hope that it does," she says. "You would hope that people start talking to each other, that they'll be more inclined to have those discussions."
Cotton Fingers is a moving, spirited monologue. It should start a much-needed dialogue.
'Cotton Fingers' is at The MAC, Belfast, May 22-23; The Playhouse, Derry, May 24-25; Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin, May 29-31 and the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray on June 1