The righteous anger of earlier productions of The Vagina Monologues has strengthened and deepened, Jan Hallam finds, and the themes of women’s oppression and fear are still disappointingly relevant.
The Vagina Monologues, Lit Live ·
State Theatre Centre, 19 January ·
Eve Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues in the 1990s after experiencing violent incest at the hands of her father (though this was only recently publicly revealed, in her 2019 memoir) and interviewing 200 women about their relationships with their vaginas.
The work was premiered in New York in 1996. At the time it went off like a galactic rocket, picking up a zeitgeist – a hunger even – on a superficial level to rename sexual euphemisms for what they really are, and, at a significantly deeper level, to challenge the oppression of women by the patriarchy.
While reflecting on the swirling issues of the mid to late 90s, one image struck me most forcefully – that of the President of the United States inserting a cigar into the vagina of a young White House intern. Let that resonate for a moment.
In the interceding decades, the lines of gender politics have become less proscriptive, perhaps making the work that is The Vagina Monologues (VM) a little more “niche” in terms of who identifies with what.
While this may have opened the work to more questioning, it still speaks of the oppressions and fears of the bearers of vaginas that are still disappointingly relevant today.
Sarah McNeill, as producer and actor, opens the 2021 Perth season with the able support of actors Alex Steffensen and Lauren Thomas.
Having seen a couple of previous productions – 2002 being one of them, in which McNeill took part alongside Perth media personalities – this year’s relies entirely on the acting strengths of the three women, and it is good casting.
Mature meets ingenue, meets feisty, meets funny, meets almost angry, meets disillusioned … well, VM meets just about every shade of female in a good-natured way and it is this very good nature that may reflect the weight of the decades.
Earlier productions were fired by righteous anger (which, to be honest, burned brightly and quickly), this production sits a little meditatively in the shallower waters of the vast pond of male hegemony and it is, arguably, a little deeper for it. A bit more spit and snarl wouldn’t have gone astray.
The pitch gets a bit excited with the monologue on the shame and self-hate prompted by the male gaze, and Steffensen pulls it off well. And yet, its resolution is uncertain.
The powerful testimony of a Bosnian woman who “survived” (as in didn’t die from) the atrocities of the Balkan conflicts in the early 90s is moving, with Thomas, the younger self, chirruping away about her “flower” like a character out of a Disney animation, while McNeill is the shattered, empty shell after soldiers perpetrated tortures that must not be left unsaid.
This is one woman’s story… and it is many thousands of other women’s stories that mustn’t be left unsaid.
Seen in total, the VMs of 2021 speak with a voice that has strengthened in the preceding decades. Vaginas, and those who identify positively with them, are not where they were at any other point in history … but the labour is long, and as my old mum would say, “all worth it”.
Pictured top: Alex Steffenson is well cast in ‘The Vagina Monologues’.
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