Let’s talk about what it means to be a woman, and let’s be real about it.
That is the message of The Vagina Monologues from Edinburgh University’s Relief Theatre.
There was no hiding from the awkwardness of the topic. Director Rachel Bussom was not about to allow for the comfort of anonymity that an audience can revel in, cloaked in darkness and removed from the stage space. This theatre-in-the-round was intimate and uncomfortable and sobering. A lack of props kept this show from feeling like a staged event. Instead, it took on the live and shameless persona of an organic story-telling. The close proximity to the actors in a brightly lit room created a close connection; a sense of shared identity regardless of age or gender.
Sex is a common theme in theatre, but sexuality is more obscure. Obscurer still is female sexuality in all its forms. Not today. Today, women were talking, or in the case of Julia Carstairs they were shouting, about vaginas and everything that comes with them.
For instance: hair. Martha Myers’ exasperation and resignation shone through as she hit home about the societal pressures attached to expectations of body image – something Julia Carstairs’ first monologue, “My Short Skirt”, energetically pulled apart.
The combined efforts of the narrators, Ella Rogers, Caitlin McLean and Maddie Haynes, along with Marina Johnson’s statistical ‘Factbook’, kept the show current and hard-hitting – an impressive task considering the original show premiered nineteen years ago and society’s views on women and womanhood have changed since then. That this strong production is dedicated to the transgender community is also properly noteworthy.
Carstairs’ second monologue, “Cunt”, was a valiant attempt to reclaim a word used solely now as a derogatory term. Her exploration of sound, language and pace was invigorating and allowed a positive humour to surround the controversial language. That humour was carried on by En Thompson who offered a passionate performance in honour of her “Angry Vagina”. Her bluntness and frustration was eye-opening and tore through long-accepted notions of what womanhood means and entails.
Her anger was shared and increased tenfold in a gut-wrenching performance by Kirstyn Petras who fiercely conveyed the utter devastation of the Bosnian women who had been interviewed by playwright Eve Ensler after being subjected to the horror of rape camps. Petras pulled no punches, emulating a loathing that raised hairs and drew tears – the pain so tangible and the truth unbearable.
Jezneen Belleza may have been talking about vaginas, but her performance certainly took a pair of brass ones. As “The Woman Who Loved Vaginas”, she discussed the life of a sex worker with an honesty and intensity that, despite some more uncomfortable moments, made it impossible not to watch, listen and laugh. She lightened the mood with comedic re-enactments and did so with a grace that kept the story from becoming farcical. Instead, her frank analysis reached deep into the beauty and magic of female sexuality.
Both Isobel Dew and Siân Davies tackled sexuality and body image in a kinder manner – managing to capture the incredible feeling of self-discovery, and the subsequent elation, in a beautiful way. Sophie Harris, too, carried an air of hope in her phoenix-like rising from such a dark place to a position of acceptance and learning. Meanwhile, Ruth Brown’s impressive embodiment of generations gone by in her recollection of “The Flood” brought an endearing humour as well as a sense of pity and despair to the play. For Danielle Farrow it is the sheer beauty of womanhood and nature that matters as she recounted being present for the birth of her granddaughter. Her testimony was infectious and heart-warming.
Leaving the venue, I felt elated and empowered. This is an inspiring production that entertains, empathises and educates. Bussom, assistant director Mary McGuire and sole male of the team – producer Jacob Close – bring together a group of really talented women who do themselves, and all women, justice.
Reviewer: Amy King (Seen 11 February)
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