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'I'd open up a magazine and the abortion information would be all scratched out'

As her play about a woman travelling from Belfast to Cardiff to get a termination takes to the NI stage, Welsh writer Rachel Trezise tells Lynn Enright why she hopes it will spark debate

Tough topic: playwright Rachel Trezise
Tough topic: playwright Rachel Trezise

By Lynn Enright

The Welsh writer Rachel Trezise is fretting about her latest play, Cotton Fingers, arriving in Northern Ireland. "It feels like I've dipped my pen in someone else's blood," she admits, when we meet in a rehearsal room in the National Theatre of Wales. "It feels like it should be an Irish writer tackling this subject, but it was sort of an accident."

Cotton Fingers is a one-woman show about a young woman travelling from Belfast to Cardiff to get an abortion.

Trezise wrote it after the National Theatre of Wales commissioned five writers to make a new piece of work to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service.

"I didn't want to do a nice 'the NHS saved my life' story," she says, "so I thought I would do something on abortion - and that very week, the NHS had started funding abortions for Northern Irish women if they travelled over."

The monologue tells the story of Aoife, a young working-class Catholic woman who finds herself alone in a Cardiff abortion clinic, after making the type of journey that more than 900 real-life Northern Irish women make each year.

"I wanted to write about women caring for each other in the NHS," says Trezise.

"I was thinking about nurses and the silent pact that women have where things are implicitly understood."

Even though Trezise isn't Northern Irish, her project ended up being about that part of the United Kingdom that is so often overlooked - in art, in the media, in politics.

The 40-year-old had visited Belfast only once before, in the late 1990s, when she was studying in Limerick as part of an exchange programme with her Welsh university. At the time, Ireland's conservatism shocked her.

"When I went to Limerick, I realised that divorce had only been legal for two years. I thought, 'What is this place?'" she recalls. "I'd open up Elle magazine and all the abortion information had been scratched out at the back."

Twenty years on, she relied on her memories of that time, as well as newspaper reports, to write her play.

Trezise grew up "very poor, very working-class" in the Rhondda Valley, a part of south Wales that was devastated by the collapse of the mining industry.

Her mother, who worked as a cleaner, brought her up "mostly by herself".

Trezise was abused by a stepfather, an ordeal that informed her debut novel, In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl, published when she was just 24.

She grew up in a house without any books and didn't see a play until she was an adult and had become a well-respected novelist.

But she had always loved reading at school and was particularly moved when she studied Maya Angelou's memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. "It was the first book I read about sexual abuse," she says. "I thought, 'Somebody has written about it. Maybe I can write about it'."

Tough topic: playwright Rachel Trezise
Tough topic: playwright Rachel Trezise

Her second book, a collection of short stories called Fresh Apples won the Dylan Thomas Prize, which at the time was worth £60,000. It opened doors, with London publishers calling and theatres commissioning her to write plays.

She never left Wales, however, and she and her welder husband live in the same area in which she grew up.

She writes every day from 6am to 4pm, taking a half-hour break to eat her lunch in front of a daily politics show.

To help pay the bills, she takes on occasional editing and teaching work.

Trezise, like almost everyone else, has been won over by the Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls, and sees its prominence as almost serendipitous.

"Weirdly, when I started writing Cotton Fingers, the first series of Derry Girls was airing," she says. "And I thought that was strange, because usually there's very little about Northern Ireland."

She thinks Derry Girls is doing a great job of educating British people about the reality of life in 1990s Londonderry, and wonders if Cotton Fingers can do something similar.

Louisa Harland, who plays Orla in Derry Girls, was cast in the first production of Cotton Fingers last summer, and Amy Molloy takes on the role this year, when the show arrives in Northern Ireland.

Watching her play performed for the first time was a moving experience, Trezise says. "I didn't realise how emotional it was until I first saw it performed on stage. I cried. I thought, 'Oh, you can't cry at your own work', but I was looking around and other people were crying too.

"I can't say categorically that theatre does help, but you would hope that it does.

"You would hope that people start talking to each other, that they'll be more inclined to have those discussions."

  • Cotton Fingers is at The MAC, Belfast, tonight, for information visit themaclive.com, and The Playhouse, Londonderry, tomorrow and Saturday, visit www.derry playhouse.co.uk

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