It’s very difficult to walk into a theatre without any preconceived notions of what you are about to watch. The case was certainly no different with De-terminated. The full title of the piece, De-terminated: The abortion diaries, is a loaded phrase that brings with it all the taboo and discussion of the abortion debate that has been rocking the world, and indeed the Maltese islands.
Before the actors even arrive on the stage, the audience is immersed straight into the debate, being inundated with a myriad of testimonies, opinions, arguments, and confessions.
A screen outside the theatre presents images of articles, Facebook statues, campaigners, politicians, all passionately presenting their side of the argument. The mood shifts slightly as you enter the theatre. The room is dark, save for five chairs that are illuminated by their own spotlights. Over this setting is a soundtrack of voices, which you quickly realise are the voices of all the people that director, producer, and journalist Herman Grech has interviewed in the run up to the piece. It certainly helps to immerse you into the world of the performance; it begins as soon as you step inside the theatre. You are forced to focus on the subject at hand and forget about anything else happening outside.
I could go on to summarise the happenings of the hour and fifteen minute-long performance that followed, but I truly feel that this is not the kind of review that De-terminated merits.
The stories portrayed are all complex and real and cannot be watered down into a five-minute online read. Seven characters are presented in the piece; five who are sharing their personal relationship with abortion, and two people who present the major camps in the abortion debate: the Pro-Life campaign and the Pro-Choice campaign. The stark contrast between the characters of Sarah and Joseph, portrayed by Charlotte Grech and Jes Camilleri respectively, can easily be considered to be the over arching theme of the entire piece. Sarah is representative of the pro-choice camp, Joseph the pro-life camp, and they are the only two characters in the piece that interact with each other.
There is a constant back and forth between the two, as they tirelessly attempt to convince the other that their opinion is the correct one. Interestingly enough, though not surprisingly, they never reach any sort of compromise. They spew facts and statistics at each other that intend to shock, anger, sadden, and move the audience in an attempt to garner their support.
“Abortion is a taboo of our patriarchal society, where the men shout the loudest”
Those who know me know that I am a very opinionated person, and never in my life did I think I would find myself understanding the point of view of a pro-life campaigner. But the way the piece is put together really invites audience members to open up their minds and listen to the stories of these people.
There was a brief moment, while Jes was monologuing, that I found myself thinking “he has a point there” and I understood why he felt so strongly about advocating against abortion. Although, that sympathetic feeling quickly faded when he uttered the words “girls are going out and getting drunk, and when shit hits the fan they don’t know how to deal with the consequences” and referred to pro-choice campaigners as “hysterical women”— he lost me there.
Another interesting aspect is the contrast between the two characters portrayed by Alan Paris, the only person to play two roles in the piece. Both are men who got a girl pregnant at a young age, and in both cases the girl had an abortion. One of the men (Konrad) was a devout Christian, who converted after having a troubling childhood and rebellious adolescence. The other (Jacob) is an energetic ‘lad’s lad’ (think the Balluta Boys from Comedy Knights) who grew up to regret the abortion. It is interesting to hear these stories being told from the man’s side, and while I stand by ‘no uterus no opinion’, it is interesting to hear how the man reacts to the situation. Especially when the character of Jacob could very easily be the counterpart to the story told by Stephanie (portrayed by Jo Caruana) a girl who got pregnant from a one-night stand.
Jo’s character, Stephanie, gives a detailed portrayal of the physical procedure that brings audience members uncomfortably close to the experience in a way many may not want to be. But this is part of what made De-terminated such powerful theatre.
We often discuss our opinions on the matter without fully knowing all the details; Stephanie’s story reminds us that whist abortion was the only possible option for her, it was not an easy process. Marta Vella’s character, Christine, also brings us uncomfortably close to the painful reality of abortion. Her painfully honest depiction of a rape victim who had an abortion at home alone, exposes the emotional trauma often tied to abortion.
In contrast, Isabel Warrington’s character, Rebecca, presents a story that we do not often hear. Rebecca tells us how she was conceived through rape, and is thankful for the law that kept her mother from aborting her, choosing to put her up for adoption instead. It is almost impossible not to sympathise with the points that she raises, even if you are pro-choice, as you cannot dismiss a person’s feelings as untrue or unworthy.
The entire performance presents such a wide variety of stories, that it does not impose a final opinion on the audience. Instead, audiences are left with pieces of a story that they must put together on their own, meaning that different people will go away with different stories based on how they connect the pieces.
“We seem to think it’s the woman’s job to keep her legs shut”
Herman Grech’s careful curation of the stories he has gathered, paired with the honest portrayal of the stories by the cast, gives audiences “the chance to rise above the political and social cacophony” as Herman Grech put it himself, “and really reflect on a stark reality played out behind the scenes”. This contemporary piece of verbatim theatre, a stye of theatre not common in Malta, is extremely relevant and I truly believe it needs to be seen by people of all backgrounds – regardless of their opinion on the abortion debate.