Women’s reproductive rights were a staple of second-wave feminist drama, surfacing in plays such as Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom or Sarah Daniels’ Byrthrite. Now they are back at the Royal Court in a new play, A Time to Reap, by emerging Polish dramatist, Anna Wakulik, who participated in the Court’s International Residency in 2011. A Time to Reap is the play’s English language premiere (translated by Catherine Grosvenor), having debuted last year in Poland. I would dearly love to know how the play was received in Poland given its provocative treatment of the Catholic Church and abortion (if anyone out there reading this has information, do press the comment button). Abortion in Poland is illegal barring exceptional circumstances: endangerment to the mother’s life, pregnancy resulting from a criminal act, or serious abnormality to the foetus, and even these circumstances almost came to be outlawed by a pro-life bill, only narrowly defeated in 2011.
Dealing with Catholicism and abortion there is nothing ‘preachy’ about A Time to Reap. It tells one woman’s personal experience of an unwanted pregnancy (after sex with a priest on a church summer camp) and of the ‘complications’ surrounding a second instance in which the woman falls pregnant after an affair with a young man whose father (a gynaecologist and abortionist) is her long term lover and employer. The idea of making this a personal story comes from Wakulik’s research for the play which made her aware of how, while abortion is talked about as an issue in Poland, it is rarely addressed in terms of women’s personal experiences (there’s an interesting interview with Wakulik on YouTube where you can hear more about the background to the writing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4m1QPQCtIHg) .
A Time to Reap is written as a three-hander: father (Jan), son (Piotr) and the young woman (Marysia). The cast of Owen Teale (Jan), Max Bennett (Piotr) and Sinéad Matthews (Marysia) evidenced a strong ensemble style, with Matthews as the compelling female centre of the unequal-righted. Compositionally, the play moves backwards and forward in time to chronicle the shifting social fabric of the nation, post-1989, while its use of reportage, dialogue and the confessional allows for a mix of intimate, personal experience and the bigger cultural picture shaping small-town life in Niepokalanów and, by contrast, big-city dwelling in Warsaw. The multiple locations are staged within a single setting which is the local church in Niepokalanów and designer Max Jones has done an excellent job of transforming the Upstairs studio space into a church-like interior. That means, for instance, that when Marysia and Piotr have their romantic fling that we are told is taking place in London, it is acted out on the altar of Catholicism. The shift to London may occasion a sense of sexual liberation, a place where the young ‘couple’ can get drunk on ‘Cosmopolitan’ cocktails, or Piotr can explore his new-found identity as the bisexual Peter, but the Church is ever present. Always looping back in time to one key date – the Feast of Assumption of the Virgin Mary that is also Piotr’s birthday – there’s a wickedly funny bit of business around a birthday cake that Jan has bought for his son. It’s a christening cake (an order that a customer failed to collect) complete with an iced baby on top, that Jan invites Marysia to cut into with a knife (she opts instead for blowing up balloons).
There’s a topical resonance to A Time to Reap given that the throne of St Peter lies empty this week following the unprecedented retirement of Pope Benedict XVI. It’s unlikely, however, as Wakulik’s play makes clear, that there will be a white smoke signal for abortion rights in Catholic Poland any time soon.