The Humber Mouth
Hull Literature
Festival 2002

Hull Literature Festival 2002 
 the humber mouth  14th - 24th November 2002


Tariq Ali

An Evening with Jon Ronson

Weird Sisters Get Around

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth

Reality TV-How Real is Real?

Pete McCarthy

The Vagina Monologues

Reading the Metre

Robert Edric

Canongate Crime

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{ Critical Eye � on-line critic }
Diane Dubois

The Vagina Monologues
Hull Truck, November 18th

The crowd for this evening's performance was large, cheery and loud! As I sat, waiting for the house lights to go down, I closed my eyes and listened to the lively hubbub of the gathered multitude engaged in their many overlapping conversations. It was pleasing to hear that so many of the excited voices belonged to women, though the audience exhibited a healthily varied demographics in terms of gender, race, sexuality and age. All were united in an atmosphere of eager anticipation, as a palpable will to cross boundaries, defy conventions and break taboos swept through the room.

Then the lights dimmed, a man came on stage, and, like good little schoolgirls we all promptly shut up and sat in dutiful obeisance. His prelude was entirely dispensable, and completely at odds with the rest of the evening. I felt that this man was somehow giving his permission for the six women actors to proceed to talk about their bodies. Have I missed something, or was this performance not all about "unlocking the vagina's mouth?" If women cannot talk for themselves about vaginas, then what, really, was the point? The man asked the members of his audience-for it now felt as though it was his audience-if they were worried. Well, I must confess to not being at all worried, until he turned up.

Thankfully, he soon disappeared, never to be seen again. What followed was a very static production that almost always consisted of six women reading from bulky black folders while seated on white stools. Little movement was permitted in what was more of a script in hand event than theatre proper. That this was a real shame was made all the more apparent when some monologues transcended the bedtime story feel of the rehearsed reading and blossomed into genuine acting. One noteworthy instance was when one actor demonstrated an impressive and well-observed variety of orgasmic female moans, the audience hooting in gleeful recognition and revelling in the accuracy of her renditions. Others came from an actor who showed impressive range and ability, first in her tragic, enraging portrayal of a Bosnian war-rape survivor and, later, as she tells the story of a young woman's sexual awakening by an older, glamorous woman. Finally, I must single out for praise the actor who gave us the now notorious monologue where the audience is incited to join together and chant the word 'cunt'.

A note on this: to fully appreciate the scene it is, of course, vital to understand that 'cunt', the strongest and most abusive and hate-filled expletive in the English language, refers directly to women's bodies. In a woman-hating culture this, sadly, comes as no surprise. As such, the 'cunt' monologue acts as a wonderfully liberating act of reclamation of the word, and therefore that part of the body to which it refers. That this monologue was given to the most sweet and genteel member of the cast was a bold stroke. The fact that she must have been around seventy years old added to the force of the scene. Clad in elegant, dark velvet and wearing a string of pearls that matched the snowy whiteness of her hair, this venerable sister's eyes glinted with jaunty mischief throughout her sprightly performance. A pity that the audience responded with a few feeble, terrified, half-uttered 'cunts' instead of a full-on, militant chant, but I suppose the longest journey begins with a small, single step.

Though the cast of six represented a good cross section of women in terms of age, I felt that a wider range of races and ethnicities needed to be present to do full service to the script. I also really, really wanted these six women to be less confined to their stools and more free to move about. They had obviously been told to 'react' to what each other was reading, and, indeed, they do exchange some wicked little grins from time to time. However, even the most disciplined performer would find this a challenge to sustain in a piece that runs for the best part of two hours. Why not have a large collective of women, coming and going, appearing sometimes singly, other times in twos or threes, and, where appropriate, as a vast chorus?

The script itself is devised from Eve Ensler's written record of oral accounts given by women entrusting her with their most intimate secrets. As so little is prescribed by the actual text in terms of how to get the words off the page and on to the stage, one would think this play would provide a golden opportunity for a director eager to show off his or her creativity and inventiveness. One could argue that the words 'speak for themselves', but then one must ask what, in the end, was gained by transferring them from Ensler's book into the visual, spatial, temporal and dynamic medium of theatre.

The actors all gave commendable readings, drawing forth exactly the right response from their appreciative audience, be it peals of laughter, sympathetic groans or poignant silence. Nevertheless, I think the cast would agree that the real star of the show was the writing. Sometimes funny, sometimes moving, the energy of the piece resides in the monologues themselves. One voice asks whether openly talking about vaginas destroys their mystery, or if this was just another myth designed to keep them in the dark. If anything, the full mystery, the beauty and power of femininity was presented to us, in the full light of day, alongside outrage at its violation, control and disempowerment, centuries old and still persisting.

Some of the ideas expressed in the monologues sound familiar to me, as I recognise steps taken on a long and by no means ended journey that we call feminism. This joy of affirmation-of re-cognition, of knowing again what we already knew-is one of the chief pleasures to be found in the monologues. Alongside this there is the exhilaration of saying what is thought to be unsayable, and saying it with pride, with warmth and with righteousness. What is more, we know that these things need to be said and said again, until, instead of shame, we discover a joyous celebration. Where oppression resides we also find an ever-growing resistance. Where once was isolation and fear, women are forming for themselves a strength-filled unity. All together, now; say it, tell me: "CUNT . . . CUNT."