NOW FOR THE NORTH

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Three’s Theatre Company

The MAC, Belfast – 7 September 2019

Hours after thousands of people have marched through Belfast on the Rally for Choice, there’s an understated sense of purpose about the title of Three’s Theatre Company’s theatrical installation, which leads small audience groups around some of the MAC’s lesser known spaces, telling stories and tugging at heartstrings en route.

On 26 May last year, the people of Ireland voted by a substantial majority to repeal the 8th Amendment to the country’s constitution, thereby allowing the government to legislate for abortion.  One significant aspect of the pro-choice campaign was the solidarity of people of all ages, genders and backgrounds, coming together from north and south, in pursuit of change.  But when the result was announced, a crucial question hung in the air.  What now for the North?

The final sentence of the Abortion Act 1967 (an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom) states:  “This Act does not apply to Northern Ireland”.  While the Westminster government allows women from Northern Ireland free access to abortion within the National Health Service in Britain,  the provision of similar provision back home is a different matter altogether.  

Aborting an unborn child, regardless of personal circumstances , is something that no woman takes lightly.  It is an agonising decision, an almost impossible choice poised delicately between two precious lives.  When faced with the expense, medical jeopardy and emotional trauma of having to take a plane or boat across the Irish Sea for a procedure, the consequences are unutterably difficult.

Director Anna Leckey has brought together a company of writers, storytellers, poets, dancers and actors to deliver a raft of ten personal accounts, each throwing new, sometimes surprising light, onto the shock of an unplanned pregnancy and the troubling, enduring repercussions it can precipitate. The well-balanced pieces are, in turn, urgent, rueful, heart-breaking, embittered, reflective and, yes, joyous.

Proceedings begin and end with the musings of an older woman, gently delivered by Helena Bereen.   In 50 Years by Colm G. Doran, she looks back on her early career as a poorly paid nurse in London and her unknowing recruitment to a private abortion clinic, where she brings comfort to the frightened young women from her home place who have come to this cold house.  In Gavin Turtle’s Light Years, she is a compassionate, pro-choice campaigner, bringing all her life experience to the fight for equal rights for Northern Ireland’s women.

Julie McKegney’s A Mum’s Story, brightly told by Rachel Murray in the MAC’s family room, is a hymn to maternal love, a testimony to the unending pleasure a child brings, regardless of the situation surrounding its conception.  Murray reappears in the quiet of the landing, silently recalling through an audio recording of her voice, the dual horror of miscarriage, followed by the news that her second pregnancy has resulted in a fatally damaged foetus.  With admirable courage and honesty, the writer Barbara Whearty has here told her own story.

Rosie Barry has the best line in Emily De Dakis’s sardonic Oh Yeah Because You Could Choose Not To.  The title says it all.  As a young teenage character casually remarks, you could choose not to.  And he’s right.  Abortion is a choice.  It’s not an obligation.

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The piece is not all about women.  Turtle’s Slow Education eavesdrops on a prospective father, played by Thomas Finnegan, as he confides a tortuous secret to his best mate (Cailum Carragher).  The conversation does not go the way he expects.  His friend is supportive but hesitantly critical of the decision to abort the baby.  He turns his gaze onto the plight of the woman, pointing out the long-lasting damage it may cause her.  Their conversation remains inconclusive but another path, another possibility, has been opened up.

Elisha Gormley does a neat double-turn, first in Doran’s Hers, as a young woman who obliquely shares bad news with her boyfriend (Carragher). She inflates his macho amusement when, at first,  he thinks she’s talking about his former girlfriend. “Whose is it?” he asks, smirking.  The penny drops in a delicious moment of realisation, but her genuine love for him might just effect an unexpected conclusion.

In Gina Donnelly’s Tea, Gormley and Barry play two friends planning a weekend away, over a wee cup of tea.  It’s all very girly and giggly until Gormley’s aversion to staying in a hotel becomes an issue. What’s the problem?  She privately shares with the audience a horrifying event that still haunts her,  of being alone in a hotel room with a bundle of sanitary towels and a dose of abortion pills.  So dreadful is the memory that she can’t even share it with her best friend.

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This thoughtful, multi-faceted piece is quietly delivered, intelligent and mercifully free from strident sloganising.  Finally, the title comes into its own.  On 21 October, if the power-sharing Stormont Assembly is still slumbrous, abortion and same-sex marriage will be legalised in Northern Ireland.  In bidding the audience goodnight, Leckey remarks that, hopefully, there will be no reason for this performance to be repeated.  But, should the situation continue unchanged, Three’s will continue to present Now For the North until the job is done.

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