In a chilly rehearsal space in north London, cast members from the Royal Court’s new play A Time to Reap are playing a word-guessing party game, Taboo. It’s a way of passing lunchtime and an extension of rehearsals – characters in the drama play the game at one point. But it also seems highly appropriate. The play’s subject is certainly contentious, for this delicate, frank three-hander deals with one of the hottest debates in Polish politics: abortion and the influence of the Catholic church.
Leaving the actors to their game, the young Polish playwright Anna Wakulik and her translator Catherine Grosvenor join me to discuss why Wakulik decided to pick up such a hot political potato. The playwright says she was prompted partly by reading Women’s Hell (Pieklo Kobiet), a collection of articles published by Polish writer Tadeusz Boyeleski in 1930, describing the impact on women of a society in which abortion was illegal.
“What really hit me was that the situation of women hasn’t really changed in Poland since he wrote that text,” Wakulik says.
In fact, the situation did change in the decades between 1932 and 1993, when restrictions on abortion were gradually relaxed over the years. But in 1993, the law was changed to become among the strictest in Europe, legalising terminations only under three specific circumstances.
“Under communism there was wide access to abortion in Poland,” she continues. “It became more restricted after the fall of communism in 1989. After that the church became a central force in Polish political life.”
But anyone expecting a play that simply demands abortion rights may be surprised. Wakulik’s more thoughtful approach considers the impact of the current legislation and social pressures on individuals. She examines the issue through a love triangle: two men (father and son) and a young woman, Marysia. The father, Jan, is a gynaecologist who conducts clandestine illegal abortions. The son, Piotr, has moved to London. Each of them is affected personally by Jan’s work; each changed by events in the play. Wakulik says that abortion law is often used as “a political tool”: she wanted to explore it from a personal angle and to examine both painful inner conflicts and the wider cultural and religious backdrop.
“It would be the worst thing to write a ‘pro-abortion play’ for me. I hope I showed three different points of view, properly. And the reference point for the characters is always religion – even for Jan, the father, who has distanced himself from religion, and for Piotr, who has lost contact with Poland. Those are the beliefs that go deep. It’s in your blood. And that’s what you see in the play.”
“What’s also very important is the cult of Maria,” she adds, “which goes even deeper in Poland than I show in the play. It’s connected with the role of the mother in Polish culture. The play is set on Assumption Day, August 15, which started as a pagan celebration at the beginning of harvest. Over the years the Catholic church has turned it into a Catholic celebration, so it’s become a cult of the Virgin Mary. But underneath it are very different traditions.”
Wakulik comes from a liberal background and says that most of her friends are in favour of relaxing the laws on abortion. But she wanted to try to understand how a young woman from a more conservative background might feel.
“The central character comes from a very small religious town in Poland, so I did research into that town and I tried to think how a character like that would think about abortion ... Even if your conviction is that it is the right thing to do, there is still the influence of that culture to deal with.”
Wakulik, born a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, has known only post-communist Poland, and her play explores the three worlds she sees in Polish society. Marysia represents the traditional voice; Jan the historical; and Piotr the contemporary young Pole. Elyse Dodgson, head of the Royal Court’s international department, suggests that, to some degree, it is a “state-of-the-nation play”.
“The play is about much more than the church and abortion,” says Dodgson. “It’s a very honest portrait of a young woman growing up in that society. It’s such a tender piece. And it fits in with the many plays we’ve done about the post-Soviet era. Many traditions and values have been wiped away and people’s lives have been so affected. Along with A Time to Reap we’re doing readings that have come out of our recent work in Ukraine and Georgia.”
But Dodgson explains that the Royal Court’s international programme is not looking for “issue” plays: rather, the theatre seeks out writers who have something they want to say and an interesting way of saying it. “We always ask the writers to consider two things. What is a play? And who are we now? Also, as far as international work goes, to tell us something very specific, very urgent. We admired her [Wakulik’s] ability to experiment with form and to write about something very relevant.”
Wakulik attended the Royal Court’s 2011 International Residency for Emerging Playwrights and returned to the theatre to work on A Time to Reap. The play has an unconventional style: the three characters shift from living through a moment, to commenting on it, to confessing their feelings to the audience. Wakulik says she was inspired by Tony Kushner’s modern classic Angels in America.
“The play [A Time to Reap] is about hypocrisy, so I wanted to have those two levels. On one level, what people say to each other, and how they try to justify their actions, and on the other level what they really think and want to say, but for some reason don’t.”
The play was performed in Polish at the Teatr Polski in Poznan last November. Wakulik says that it was praised for asking questions and bringing a new voice to the debate. That, she says, is why she writes for the theatre.
‘A Time to Reap’, Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London, February 22-March 23