By Diana Perez Garcia
The National Theatre of Wales presents Cotton Fingers at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, from 29-31 May and Mermaid Theatre, 1st of June
One person shows are often written and staged as a calling card for emerging performers to showcase their acting talent and commitment to their craft. They allow new voices to carve a space in an industry that is notoriously difficult even for its established players. Dramatic monologues are therefore necessary, but theatre thrives on conflict and the solitary figure of the one person show often ends up listening to its own hollow echo. Not so in Rachel Trezise’s Cotton Fingers, an eloquent and gutsy one woman show centring on sharp-witted and feisty Aoife (Amy Molloy), a twenty-year-old from a council estate in West Belfast who, facing a crisis pregnancy, decides to seek an abortion in Wales. Trezise’s decision to give voice to Aoife in stream of consciousness monologue emerges as the best way to dramatise the loneliness and desertion experienced by women forced to travel to terminate their pregnancies. The power of Tresize’s script resides in its ability to give us insight into the unvoiced and suppressed experience of its protagonist, whose torrent of words is as liberating for her as it is moving for the audience.
Cotton Fingers manages to be both politically alert and emotionally resonant. This is a credit to Trezise’s sensitive and punchy portrayal of Aoife, of course, but also to Amy Molloy, who composes a young woman walking a tight rope between vulnerability and bravado. Molloy deftly uncoils Aoife’s painful experience in a captivating performance that combines supple physicality with nuanced delivery. This is remarkable because Aoife is as exemplary as she is unique; on her shoulders rests a collective story of trauma and grief, but she is also an emerging consciousness and both author and performer successfully reveal both her limitations and her tremendous potential.
Aoife’s story begins with a visit to her boyfriend Cillian on Boxing Day. There she cosies up to him on the sofa under a blanket, and their viewing of a rerun of Dirty Dancing descends into an underwhelming sexual tryst because she “felt bad for letting him down and there was nothing to do for thirty minutes.” Aoife likes Cillian but she knows she isn’t “going to like him forever” so when she finds herself pregnant because he was unable to “pull out on time” during their short lived and uninspiring encounter, she decides to terminate the pregnancy. Aoife was brought up in a Catholic household by her widowed mother and her Catholic background convincingly trickles through the flashes of guilt that run through her monologue, yet Trezise commendably grounds her difficulties in Northern Ireland’s regressive abortion legislation and her protagonist’s socio-economic limitations. This is an important, even refreshing, political point to make in a cultural climate that often psychologises the marginalised to sweep their deprivation under the carpet. Cotton Fingers recognises the impact of a legacy of cultural and familial secrecy and trauma but it rightly grounds them in disenfranchisement and it is a stronger piece for that reason.
Cotton Fingers is thus doubly combative showing that where a middle or upper class woman might face a psychological or emotional challenge, a working class woman must break through barrier after barrier of opprobrium and economic deprivation. This is directly addressed when, upon revealing that a “trip to the mainland” to procure and abortion “will cost me money I never had” to the doctor who confirms her pregnancy, Aoife meets her stony disapproval as “she looked at me like I was dog shit in the middle of the road.” Although due to a recent change in legislation in Northern Ireland Aoife will be able to get an abortion free of charge in Britain, she must get the money for her plane ticket and travel expenses out of her meagre salary as an employee in a multiplex. She must, for the same reason, travel alone, thus suggesting that although the silence of women seeking an abortion is often the result of shame, it is also born out of necessity for those who do not have pockets deep enough to bring a companion to support them.
Director Julia Thomas has created a pared down and clinical set aided by designer Carl Davies and lighting Designer Joe Fletcher. A brick wall at the back of the stage suggests confinement and the hurdles Aoife must face on her journey to and from Wales. An ever present row of the kind of plastic seats that are found in waiting rooms of all descriptions, from clinics to airports to train stations to ferry decks, cleverly doubles up as a sofa, an operating table, and a hospital bed. The floor shines under Aoife’s feet with a forbidding coldness that is amplified by lighting that is often as glacial as her ordeal. The cold atmosphere generated by the creative team contrasts with the warmth of the play’s central character and the frank recognition of women’s complex reproductive experiences: from synchronised menstruation to period cramps, through to child birth, miscarriage and abortion. Cotton Fingers stages the hostility towards the female body that lies at the centre of our culture, giving voice to the trauma endured by generations of women.
Although conceived as one in five monologues written to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS, Cotton Fingers will resonate with Irish audiences on the wake of the first anniversary of the repeal of the 8th amendment. The referendum becomes part of the script when Aoife quotes a television presenter’s rhetorical question: “what kind of country puts a woman in a situation like that?” in clear reference to Savita Halappanavar’s death. Although the question no longer holds in the Republic, it is still very much alive in Northern Ireland where this urgent matter has been overshadowed by Brexit. As Aoife puts it in the play, “you can’t go around experiences; you have to go through them.” Cotton Fingers is a powerful reminder that we must continue to listen to those experiences.
Running time: 1 hour approx. with no interval
Aoife: Amy Molloy
Writer: Rachel Trezise
Director: Julia Thomas
Designer: Carl Davies
Lighting Designer: Joe Fletcher
Associate Lighting Designer: Jane Lalijee
Sound Designer: Tasha Taylor Johnson