Review: The Vagina Monologues, Relief Theatre

VMonFor a feminist blog, this one seems obvious, doesn’t it? You think feminist play, you think The Vagina Monologues. But while I consider myself a well-read feminist, I have to admit that I was new to this play. When I went to see it performed by Relief Theatre last night my entire background knowledge consisted of the Wikipedia article and some interviews with the author Eve Ensler. However, Laura, who came to see the play with me, had seen it done before, which made for an interesting discussion afterwards. The following review is the result of that discussion.

In the foreword to the 1998 print edition, Gloria Steinem writes: “When I first went to see Eve Ensler perform the intimate narratives in these pages – gathered from more than two hundred interviews and then turned into poetry for the theatre – I thought: ‘I already know this: it’s the journey of truth telling we’ve been on for the past three decades.'” This statement is still gloriously, depressingly true in 2015. Almost 20 years after its premiere, many of the stories in The Vagina Monologues still resonate, making it as strong and relevant a piece as ever. At the same time, this reaction shows the pitiful progress we have made. Never mind the Hillary Clintons and Beyonces out there, we are still abused, oppressed, silenced, and we still don’t talk about this blindingly obvious thing: our vaginas. In this context, performing The Vagina Monologues is necessary, could even be considered revolutionary.

Having said that, in the context of Edinburgh University, a world class institution which runs degrees in Gender Studies, The Vagina Monologues should be nothing more and nothing less than a starting point and staple of any theatre group’s repertoire. Yet, it is performed by Relief Theatre, “a society dedicated to learning theatre things, trying theatre things and doing theatre things in the community, giving it the feel of an exciting fringe experiment rather than revolutionary activism.

The tone for the evening was set by two small details: a cake and a donation box. The cake was in the shape of a huge, pink vagina. Imagine Barbie’s vagina (if she had one) spread open on a plate. I’ll skip the Freudian analysis The donation box was for two organisations, Edinburgh’s Women Aid and Abused Men in Scotland. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for supporting abused men, in Scotland or elsewhere, but a performance of The Vagina Monologues is just about the last place where I want to donate money to their cause. It seems to miss the point of the play and smacks of #notallmen.

The choice to stage the play in the round was interesting. I was expecting a black stage with a single spotlight, but the large circle of chairs created an atmosphere that reminded me of a group therapy session where secrets are shared with peers in a safe space. Unfortunately, sitting in the second row meant I wasn’t able to see some of the actors who didn’t get up from their chairs to perform. The cast completely blended in with the audience: a sea of mostly white, 20-year-old student faces, with a disappointing male presence. Disappointing because there were few men in the audience, yet there were marked attempts to include them in the performance. When audience members read out quotes drawn from a hat, the men got the loudest laughs; Ruth Brown (‘The Flood’) clearly relished making the man sitting next to her uncomfortable; and Jezneen Belleza (‘The Woman Who Loved Vaginas’) chose to put her arm around a male audience member while talking about women’s orgasms before then imitating them, spread out on the floor and inviting a male gaze that should have been handed over at the door.

To me it’s their mundanity that gives the stories in The Vagina Monologues so much power. They are told by one woman each, but they are the stories of many of us. We have them in common without realising, because we don’t talk about them. Two actors in particular, Siân Davies (‘Because He Liked To Look’) and En Thompson (‘My Angry Vagina’), found the right tone, drawing in the audience without the need for sensationalism. It is this nonchalant confidence that I want to see more of and I hope that the women of Edinburgh University find the courage to take the space on stage that they are due and say what needs to be said, without the need for apologies or cake.

Tanja Jacobs