The many lives of vaginas
‘The Vagina Monologues’, Hill College Theatre Company at The Assembly Rooms, 11th – 13th June 2009
Where to begin? The Hill College Theatre Company’s production of Eve Ensler’s ‘The Vagina Monologues’ has been the talk of the town these last few days, not least among those who filled the theatre on Friday night – the monologues were still the focus of conversations in the early hours of Saturday as the birds began to sing. These tales of women young and old from across the world are laugh-out-loud, full of sadness. They are frightening and they are honest. It is as if, like Rebecca Carver’s glinting eyes as a little girl in ‘Questions to a Six Year Old’, all the women who speak have found the innocent security and confidence of the child within them, and this has enabled them to open the flood gates, sending their experiences of their vaginas rushing forth like an unstoppable body of water.
Emma Ashru Jones’ fantastic direction elicits all the nuances of Ensler’s script, even improving on it with the pertinent monologue written collectively by the cast, ‘It’s OK To Explore’ and the highly entertaining impressions of the rah and Durham moans by Felicity Jackson in the final monologue of the night. That these two received the loudest applause suggests that Jones and her cast hit the spot, for want of a better phrase, in addressing the all too frequently overlooked aspects of sex and sexuality.
That is not to say that others are less worthy of praise. Harriet Ballard as an old New Yorker delicately uncovers the secret and the shame of her character’s past in ‘The Flood’, pulling her elegant cardigan with all its connotations of a prudish society closer and closer round herself, as if trying to hold in the words which finally hang in the air, no longer trapped in the ‘cellar’.
Lucy Cornell, too, in ‘My Vagina Was My Village’ speaks with all the fear of her past held precariously in her voice. Though her eastern European accent is at times difficult to hear, her sobs which lurch and jerk through her convey the atrocity of the sexual assault inflicted on her. She sits on a simple chair at the front of the stage, the comfy cosy cushion-laden bed which is used to show the new found confidence of some of the women is in darkness; it is not for her, it cannot be for her.
It is the bed, together with her pink pyjamas which gives the feel of a girly gossip to Rebecca MacKinnon’s monologue, ‘Because He Liked To Look At It’. Most of the women sit as they speak, but MacKinnon can’t seem to remain still, pacing, then sitting, then pacing again as she speaks, reflecting the amazement of an ordinary woman who discovers the beauty of her vagina.
For Harriet Tarpy in ‘The Vagina Workshop’, the bed is a support for her unsteadiness which builds to a climax throughout, as her tone changes from matter-of-fact in her recitation of how she sees her vagina to the confusion and apparent strangeness of the events she went through in order to find this perception. The hilarity she creates as she starts her story slowly and gets faster and faster is funny in that it mirrors the orgasm she describes, and for me highlights the serious side of her story: that women should not have to undergo such emotional turbulence to fully understand their bodies just because society has classed it as a taboo.
This, in many respects, seems to be at the crux of Ensler’s writings. Vaginas are not separate from the female body, rather they are a central part of it. As such, Becky Misch’s ‘Under The Burqua’, a harrowingly poetic description of the isolation of living your life without a visual identity, is highly dramatic and poignantly staged. She kneels, centre stage, shrouded in darkness akin to that which she wears. Though her voice emanates from there, a film of her dark eyes, unwavering in their gaze, blinking in fits and starts, is projected onto the wall, forcing you to listen to her words, to really think about the fact that she is a person just like any other.
The decision to follow this monologue with Clare Reavey’s ‘I Was There In The Room’ was a good one, I think, reminding us that femininity, though at times isolating, is the essence of human life. Her smile is immovable, though in no way forced, and gives a singing happiness to her tone as she remembers seeing a woman give birth.
What struck me about all the women, from Clio Hutchison’s entertaining, frankly sexual character in ‘Reclaiming Cunt’, to Felicity Jackson’s lawyer-cum-dominatrix character, is that they are ordinary people. Despite the fact that none of them speak for much over five minutes, some considerably less, all the actresses draw you deep in to their characters’ psyche, to their pasts and their futures, be they sad or happy. Posture is exploited to excellent effect, especially by Gabbi Wass in ‘The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could’, as she leans forward conspiratorially, legs wide open, then self-consciously draws them in towards her body as she reaches the darker parts of her story.
Perhaps it is because Ensler’s script is so compelling and original that all these characters seemed among the most real that I have seen at Durham. They are part of the braid of femininity which the director herself so honestly explores in ‘Crooked Braid’, her voice laden with incomprehension. However, without her enthusiasm and that of the cast, it could have been so much less; they give tangible personalities to the voices of Ensler’s vaginas.