Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Review: 'Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself' at Ovalhouse, 13th May 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars
Who could resist a title like Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself? Written by Bella Heesom (and performed by her and Sara Alexander) the show is about a woman's relationship with her genitals and finds its subject perched on the intersection of biological urges and societal pressure. 

The basic structure is an (I assume) semi-autobiographical tale which begins with Heesom's earliest sexual awakenings and takes us to the present day, stopping off along the way at key moments that shaped her sexuality. That's overlaid with a dialogue between her brain and her clitoris, through which we observe how societal conditioning has messed up her capacity to experience true pleasure.

The show wears its heart on its sleeve, at times preaching directly to the audience about feminine empowerment, anger at patriarchal expectations and an often incandescent sense of fury that the centre of a woman's sexual pleasure is stigmatised, mocked and belittled. The rear of the stage is taken up by a gradually evolving projection that sums up the status quo they're battling against, showing slogans like "Female Genitals are Gross", "You Are A Sex Object" and "The Female Orgasm Is A Bonus"

The show is aimed squarely at cis women (at straight Western cis women if you wanted to get precise), with the majority female audience cheering and clapping at the more insightful lines of dialogue. But, and I cannot stress this enough, Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva... is so good that audiences of all genders and sexual preferences can and should check this out. 

The quality of the writing is superb, the structure of the show is tuned to perfection, the production values are well above average. Best of all, it's absolutely hilarious. Heesom's cerebral and nervy character is in a classic straight-man/comic partnership with Alexander's innocently and (adorably) upbeat clitoris. The show is funny to a level that the pair often have to wait for the audience to finish laughing before they continue - always a good sign.

Beyond the laughs, the show has an emotional core which transcends a simple polemic against the miseries of the patriarchy and becomes something more universally uplifting. I don't want to diminish the show's laser-precise focus on female sexuality, but no matter who you are you'd have to have a heart of stone not to feel a rush of emotions at the show's remarkable climactic scenes. 

These theoretically are sex-positive times. Open a glossy lifestyle magazine or Sunday broadsheet and you're likely to find columnists espousing sexual freedom and female emancipation. But though things are undeniably an improvement on the past, there's still a huge culture of prudishness and shame caked on top of the ways we approach sex and specifically female genitalia - I mean, why is a "cunt" the absolute worst thing you can call someone?

Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva... (and other similarly inclined cultural objects) are gradually chipping away at all this. Late in the show, the title is explained: it's a line from a poem about 4000-year-old Mesopotamian sex goddess Inanna, whose vulva was widely revered as a holy place. It's a story reminds us that the stigma we see all around us isn't inevitable. Changes like this don't happen overnight, but this production is contributing to a slow shift in perception for the better.

Perhaps there's an argument that shows like this are preaching to the converted. Judging from the audience when I was there, people attending this will be politically switched on and smart women. The people actively promoting the status quo wouldn't go near a fringe show with a name like Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself in a million years. But, Heesom argues that women must not just defeat the misogynist leering at them from a building site, they must also evict the one society has lodged in their own heads.

I had a great time. Heesom is a genuinely insightful writer (I similarly enjoyed her previous show My World Has Exploded A Little Bit), her partnership with Sara Alexander fizzes with comic chemistry and Donnacadh O’Briain’s direction is fantastic. It's the full package and is a show destined to go far. 

Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself is at Ovalhouse until 25 May. Tickets here.

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