The Vagina Monologues | Review
The Lyric, Belfast (Naughton Studio) • 25 February ’18
By John Patrick Higgins
“I bet you’re worried – worried about vaginas.”
I wasn’t initially. But there are twelve angry women on stage; a vagina jury, and I expect to be sent down. Already I can see the black cap being fitted.
Strut and Bellow’s production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues had a rather hectic gestation period. A platform to empower, inspire and promote women makers, Strut and Bellow had just three weeks to turn around the production in order to meet the 20th anniversary of Ensler’s “V- Day”, a global movement of activism to highlight and end violence against women. Given that much of the cast were working mothers rehearsal were necessarily on the hoof. You would never know, however. Under the reassuring baton of director Jo Egan, the piece works beautifully; the design simple, the pacing graceful, and the performances nuanced and distinct.
The New York Times called The Vagina Monologues “probably the most important piece of political theatre of the decade”. They were talking about the 90’s, but this play, right here and right now, has never felt more relevant. In a country where a coterie of grey suited elderly men are still telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies, these voices, this conversation has never felt more necessary.
There is a Greek chorus of vaginas on stage. Some angry, some hysterical (a very vaginary word that), others cooing, diffident, dangerous. Slang terms are deployed: not so much an exorcism as ownership: these vaginas are being claimed back. There are three point five billion women on the planet and no two are the same, according to Always Ultra, (though the company manage to resolve this problem with only four types of sanitary pad). The action is episodic: all the actors remain on stage throughout, passive witnesses to each other’s stories, as though encouraging some linguistic break-dancing.
Michelle Yong’s story centres on the importance of body hair and the implications of its removal. Her husband cheats on her because she refused to shave her vagina. She tries it on the advice of her Marriage Guidance Councillor (!) and is appalled by her new and strange pre-sexual genitals. “I have no protection, no fluff; there’s no leaf around the flower – you can’t love a vagina if you can’t love hair. You can’t just pick the parts you like.” It doesn’t stop her husband cheating on her either!
Brenda Winter’s character has “closed up the store” after a tide of lubriciousness has scarred her for life. The story is winningly and lightly told, masking a tale of body horror and genital mystery.
In “My Angry Vagina” Melanie Clark Pullen unleashes a screed of invective against the many injustices perpetrated against the vagina, from thong underwear to smear tests: “a torch shone up it like Nancy Drew!” It’s a funny piece (“My vagina does impressions of other vaginas!”) but the raw anger running through it is palpable.
Anesu Mwota’s “My Short Skirt” is an appropriately short essay on a woman’s right to wear what she wants and not be “asking for it”. Mwota prowls the stage, weaving through the other characters, declaiming smoothly “I declare these streets, any streets, the domain of my vagina” and that “my short skirt and everything under it is mine.”
There are problems with the piece. In an attempt to make the script “relatable” there are some awkward transitions from Ensler’s original American to a more localised scenario. Hence we get a passage where somebody needs to use the toilet in a BP garage in Ballymena but also lives in an “apartment” with an “elevator”. These odd notes sound out infrequently and represent perhaps the only evidence of the rushed quality of the production. Another week and these would have been comprehensively smoothed out.
There are twelve stories collected here, some horrific, some sexy, some clammy with self-disgust, others righteously angry at an unjust of the world, each of them plausible, visceral and human. It’s a frankly stunning achievement to put all of this together so completely and so beautifully and in such a short period of time. To paraphrase Vicky Blades’ “The Vagina Workshop” “I have succumbed to vagina-wonder!”
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