When Sharon Osbourne and daughter Aimee pulled out of The Vagina Monologues a week before curtain-up due to ill health (see News, 4 Apr 2005), director Irina Brown was tearing her hair out. “It’s been mad,” she says of trying to replace the X-Factor star and her daughter, “I’m just lucky that The Vagina Monologues can draw on such an amazing pool of women.”
The glittering legacy of leading women includes Kate Winslet, Gillian Anderson, Sophie Dahl, and Cate Blanchett. And this time the excellent Rula Lenska and Diane Parish have come to the rescue and joined [Jenny Éclair] in the West End revival.
Brown directed the original London production at the request of writer Eve Ensler. “It was like nothing I’d ever read before,” says Brown, “how could I refuse?” Ensler wrote her anthropological exploration before the Sex in the City generation when there was no culture of women talking about sex so candidly. Nine years later, The Monologues still have the power to shock, challenging taboos and offering a new approach to the vagina through the stories of real women.
The Vagina Monologues is now a global phenomenon performed in 25 different countries. Money from each production goes to Ensler’s V-Day charity that has raised more that $30 million world wide to stop violence against women.
Lenska delivers a marvellously acute performance as a 72-year-old New Yorker who’s never had sex, and as the Home Counties lesbian prostitute with a talent for multiple orgasms. As toes curl and moans quicken, flashbulbs chart her enthusiasm like a hammer and bell strongman test at a fairground and build to a climax of strobe effects and fireworks from lighting designer Tim Mascall.
Eclair is deliciously naughty as the funny girl of the trio, savouring every shocking word and bringing a madcap physicality to an otherwise static production. Parish is left to handle the heavy stuff and tackles desperately painful tales of rape, genital mutilation and childbirth with tragic poise.
Audience participation is encouraged, and fortified by interval gin and tonics there is group chanting of the “c-word” in the second half to “reclaim it for the vagina”. The noble sentiment is somewhat undermined as Lenska quips, “it’s a great word to use when you’re angry,” dragging it back to an aggressive term of derogatory.
- Helen Russell
Note: The following reviews date from May 2001 and an earlier run of the production at the Arts Theatre.
Given the highly intimate nature of The Vagina Monologues, based on Eve Ensler's interviews with hundreds of women about their sex organs, we've taken a unique approach for our review of this production. Following are four points of view by sexual orientation - the straight woman, straight man, lesbian woman and gay man.
The Straight Woman
There's something rather wonderful about The Vagina Monologues and this is it: it demystifies the "down theres". I'm not sure whether I'm typical or atypical of straight women, but I can assure you that I don't have many (any?) in-depth vaginal discussions. It's not something I choose to analyse with my friends, family or anyone frankly.
And yet, Eve Ensler doing just that, on stage with open abandon, feels, somehow, liberating. Her recounting of other women's tales and concerns - so many of which echo my own - are a comfort. Finally, here is proof-positive that I am normal and so are my convoluted sexual emotions.
Amongst her monologues are some very funny and touching gems, delivered, in most parts, with a heartfelt personal style heightened by Paule Constable and Jon Buswell's inspired lighting. My favourites are the pensioner recalling the youthful "flood" which caused her to deny her libido forevermore and the "my vagina is angry" rant against tampons, douches and thongs.
That said, there are also segments which jar and irritate. Issues such as genital mutilation and rape camps are disturbing, but such blatant political activism detracts from the sensitive exploration of everyday female matters. Other one-joke monologues simply outstay their welcome - the litany of moan types and the sound plays on c-u-n-t, in particular.
In fact, in the end, although only 80 minutes, I felt the whole exercise went on just that bit too long. Yes, this brave exploration makes me want to take a mirror to myself, but I want to put it away at some point, too. Unlike Ensler and, apparently, the scores of whooping, chanting women in the audience, I fervently believe I'm defined by more than just my vagina.
- Terri Paddock (Individual score = 4)
The Gay Man
After The Puppetry of the Penis, now it's the turn of The Vagina Monologues. While the former show served only to make fun of the male members literally on display as their owners contorted them into resembling objects as diverse as the Eiffel Tower, a slow-emerging mollusc and a portrait of Prince Philip, The Vagina Monologues is altogether more cerebral and celebratory: a verbal rather than a visual experience.
For which, as a gay man (but heterosexual virgin), I was quite relieved. Of all four viewpoints expressed here, mine is undoubtedly the least qualified, in terms of direct experience of the subject matter. The only time I've been inside one was at my birth; and I've since only ever seen one in close up once, and then purely by theatrical accident. It was at the ICA (where else?), and I'd gone to see one of Simon Munnery's brilliant League Against Tedium comedy shows. As we entered the auditorium, we were invited to look through a magnifying spyglass cut into a barrel; inside, a woman was pleasuring herself.
There's no such blatant display in Eve Ensler's verbatim monologues, culled from interviews with over 200 women. Instead, there's wit, affection, neglect, discovery, and personal histories in abundance, not to mention fascinating facts - such as the one, repeated like a mantra throughout the evening, that there are 8,000 nerve fibres in the clitoris, the highest concentration anywhere in the body, and twice that of the penis.
Which made me kind of envious. And, even if I have negligible personal experience of vaginas, I felt I could truly identify with a show that talks about sex organs for an uninterrupted hour and twenty minutes because, as a gay man, we're obsessed with ours - some of us talk (and think) of little else. I loved Ensler's wonderful embrace of her subject, and her no less warm embrace of her audience.
- Mark Shenton (Individual score = 5)
The Lesbian Woman
OK, so I have a vagina. And I'm a lesbian. I probably know more about the vagina (through hands-on experience) than any of my fellow reviewers. So when faced with an evening of The Vagina Monologues, I thought "Alright, so what is this lady gonna tell me about the vagina that I don't already know?"
Well, quite a lot, really. Eve Ensler's account of the most desired, mysterious and neglected part of a woman's body is a fountain of information, emotion and entertainment brought to life on stage. The enthralling aspects of the show have been widely covered, thanks to the high celebrity cunt-count, which makes great media fodder. But there are some pretty corny moments in The Vagina Monologues that made me recoil with embarrassment - asking what a vagina would wear if it could get dressed reminds me of pretentious drinking games I used to play in my student days.
At times, Ensler's style of delivery seems like it was taken from an American self-help manual on how to let your inner child stomp, scream and cry its way onto the stage.
But her account of lesbian sex is a straight-up, no-holds-barred festival of fun with fingers. I was expecting her to get it all wrong, as right on, left-leaning but well-meaning straight people often do. She coped with the cunnilingus and packed a punch with the digital penetration, but I couldn't help thinking that for all the empowering fuss she makes about saying the word vagina on stage dozens of times every evening, uttering the word lesbian still seemed like a traumatic necessity.
- Amy Lame (Individual score = 3)
The Straight Man
Oh, what do you call it now? That thing that can take ages to warm up, sometimes doesn't seem worth the effort, often causes ridiculous arguments, but can reach an amazing climax that leaves everyone breathless. Ah yes, the monologue. An art form in itself. And one that Eve Ensler has honed to near perfection judging by her eclectic collection.
The Vagina Monologues is a funny, touching, rigorously rehearsed and occasionally squirm-inducing show. But it's not sexy - from a heterosexual male vantage. Moving, intense and sharply observed, most certainly. But curiously lacking in sensuality, despite the warmly glowing backdrops.
Much glee is expressed ad nauseum at the extra nerve-endings of the clitoris over the penis, but I think we'll settle for less sensation and easier access, thanks Eve. The politically correct men present roared appreciatively at the right moments, although this reviewer winced slightly too often for comfort. Still, if male journalists - as Ensler reports - ask her to explain the connection between vaginas and birthing, then maybe we're collectively asking for it big style.
For all this, Ensler's powerful presence as an activist for social and sexual change remains undiminished by her stealthy stagecraft. If a future female generation emerges tougher, less self-conscious and angrier as a result of her work, then male pride will have been worthily spilt.
- Gareth Thompson (Individual score = 4)