Writer: Bella Heesom
Director: Donnacadh O’Briain
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
This is not the first time that a woman’s sexual organs have been demystified on the stage. In the 1990s, performance artist Annie Sprinkle famously invited an audience to come up and, with the help of a speculum and torch, observe her cervix in the sensibly entitled Public Cervix Announcement. Before this, in 1975 Carolee Schneemann, who died in March this year, pulled out what would amount to a feminist manifesto from her vagina in the iconic piece Interior Scroll. More recently and less controversial are The Vagina Monologues, which have become a staple of regional theatre. And yet, it seems that education is still needed.
In Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself, Bella Heesom and Sara Alexander seek once again to explain a woman’s body. At school, biology and sex education classes only focus on the reproductive side of sex. The pleasure that comes from sex is something we have to figure out on our own. But Heesom, who also wrote the play, believes that girls, in particular, are encouraged to stifle their sexual desires in order to protect their reputations.
In a series of scenes Heesom and Alexander try to dispel the many myths that come with female sexuality. They tackle such lies as Girls Don’t Masturbate, Female Genitals Are Gross and Sexual Desire In Women Is Dirty. They also wrestle with the old-age contradiction that if a girl wants sex she is a slut but if she doesn’t want it, she is frigid. Taking the form of a conversation between the brain of an adolescent girl and her vagina, their observations are hardly ground-breaking, and the childlike behaviour of Alexander as the vagina eventually becomes tiresome. These parts seem more suited for a teenage audience, who may be experiencing these issues for the first time.
Better is the second part where Alexander takes on the role of Heesom’s inner woman, a kind of Earth Mother from the days of Second Wave Feminism. Alexander tries to persuade Heesom to give up all the trappings of femininity that patriarchy insists on –the make-up, the waxing, the sexy dances – and instead embrace her raw womanhood. This section seems at home, too, in Elizabeth Harper’s set of soil, water and wisteria, and Jess Bernberg’s lights work wonders.
At ninety-minutes Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulvais perhaps a little too long, especially taking into account the session that comes after the interval in which the audience can discuss with the cast their own experiences and responses. There’s nothing in the show quite as exciting as when Germaine Greer wrote in her seminal book The Female Eunuch ‘if you think you are emancipated you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood – if it makes you sick, you have a long way to go, baby.’
Heesom’s play may be less provocative than Greer’s strategy, but it’s just as thoughtful, and, even in 2019, just as necessary.
Runs until 25 May 2019 | Image: David Monteith Hodge