Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Vagina Monologues

Last night, Bristol welcomed a one-night showing of the episodic play by Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues. Having been doing the circuit for 15 years, the three-woman production has seen all manner of actresses take the hot seats – from Oscar winners to TV stars.

Billed as ‘hilarious’ and ‘moving’, The Vagina Monologues seems a tricky show to market, especially with the ‘v’ word in its title, titter titter. I overheard one man walking past the Bristol Hippodrome complaining that seeing the word ‘vagina’ on a poster was offensive, and should be covered up to protect children. Seriously! I wonder if the same was said of The Puppetry of the Penis, which the same theatre put on a few days earlier.

Tonight’s production was performed by Louisa Lytton (EastEnders, The Bill), Wendi Peters (Coronation Street) and Zaraah Abrahams (Waterloo Road). And while they were all impressive, Wendi was the standout star – even if it was hard to shake off thoughts of Cilla Battersby!

Based on Eve’s ‘Vagina Interviews’ conducted with women from all around the world, the monologues give voice to human stories, all in some way related to the vagina: sex, love, periods, hair, masturbation, FGM, rape, birth, orgasm, the multitude of alternative names for the vagina… all presenting the vagina as an organ for empowerment.

Understandably, there’s been some debate in the feminist community about The Vagina Monologues. For instance, several critics have damned the play as too anti-male and for implying that heterosexual relationships are fuelled by violence.

As such, I wondered how the (few) men in the audience would feel hearing women talk about themselves and their relationships with men like this? More to the point, as a feminist who is very aware of the PR battle we face when trying to convince men that feminist women are not anti-sex, man-haters, I wondered if this play might in fact convince these men that feminist women are the angry harridans the media falsely portrays us as.

Men are even applauded by the cast for attending, which strikes me as patronising. Why wouldn’t they attend? This is an accessible opportunity to gain an insight into how women think and feel. It’s worthwhile anyone attending.

Here’s a recent review of the play by a male reviewer. It’s interesting to read his take on it. In it, the reviewer Rob writes: ‘It is disquieting to imagine the women one knows thinking like this. How many really do?”, before asking: “Do men have anything about which they feel similarly superior?” My comment here is not in any way directed at Rob personally (I don’t know anything about him), but this tack is dredged up when anything pro-women appears – what about the men? Why does a play called The Vagina Monologues need to pander to men? It is clearly about women.

And being about women, women dominated the audience. All sorts of women. Which was great. Although there were also a number of groups who were on hen nights, maybe thinking this was going to be a raucous, cackling, smutty show. And the feeling of my companion and I was that the performance on stage was great, but the performance from some audience groups was disgraceful. Because while it was fine (if irritating) for the hen parties to shriek in the monologues about, for instance, different types of orgasm, it was wholly inappropriate and disrespectful for the same women to giggle and talk among themselves through the monologues about rape in the Congo, for instance. We observed at least two such groups rightly being asked to be quiet by Hippodrome staff.

The Vagina Monologues is not a hen night show! It’s a thoughtful exploration of a part of the body that often goes ignored. The jarring discomfort of sequencing a monologue about gang rape next to a monologue about the joy of lesbian sex is effective in how it jolts you out of your mental comfort zone, but I wondered how much of the message about the gross global abuse towards women was lost on the hen party goers. Not least because they were giggling through it.

But The Vagina Monologues *is* an important show. The caliber of actresses it has attracted, its ability to fill theatres, and its lasting reputation are all testament to its future. It’s fantastic to hear the vagina being discussed, embraced and simply talked about – when normally, but inexplicably, it’s considered a taboo word. And by mixing serious and fun monologues, Eve Ensler is ensuring that the global inequalities for women are brought home to Western audiences, as well as highlighting more local women’s issues.

Through the success of The Vagina Monologues, Eve has formed the charity V Day, which is a global non-profit movement that has raised around £50m for women’s anti-violence groups worldwide. You can’t sniff at that.

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