Writer and performer Bella Heesom’s captivating show does not shy away from the meaty issues of the day—love, sex and the volatile intersection at which they collide. A delightful set and alluring soundscape help this poetic play dissect fickle themes of self-exploration with poise and pizzazz.
Marketing for the show states: “Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself is a celebratory exploration of female sexuality, taking audiences on a journey of self-discovery through pleasure, shame, pride, fury and jubilation.” Perhaps the central thesis of this Hannah Elsy-produced performance is what defines the so-called “female gaze”.
Featuring ideas planted during adolescence, such as ‘Only Boys Masturbate’, ‘You Are A Sex Object’, and ‘Female Genitals are Gross’, this is a story of shame-free sensuality and overcoming the desperate need to be ‘normal’. Through the lens of existential enlightenment, the audience is treated to a saga of self-acceptance told through the angst and pain the modern woman endures.
In an age where porn reigns supreme, young people—and especially young men—tend to approach sex with a skewed sense of reality. Shows like this could help eradicate those prejudices and place the emphasis on respect. It is therefore an undeniably important, albeit entertaining, work of art. In fact (an adapted version of) this play can and should be shown in schools to offer genuine sex education.
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Heesom’s is clearly a feminist work. But it doesn’t feel preachy. (The “patriarchy” is only mentioned once.) Instead, surrealism and comedy intertwine to produce a beguiling piece of theatre in which the underlying message can be teased out without being overstated.
Literally and figuratively the protagonist is a woman on a journey of self-discovery. The symbolism, here, is simultaneously tacit and downright explicit. In scenes both baffling and bold Heesom’s co-star, Sara Alexander, assumes the actual guise of the protagonist’s clitoris while Heesom plays the role of the brain.
What ensues is a—sometimes hilarious—tug of war between the way the protagonist thinks she should behave versus the way her carnal desire wants to. In this skit are echoes of Freud’s Superego and Id—the immortal imagery of the tempting devil on one shoulder and the angel of morality on the other. As the pastiche develops, preconceived perceptions are probed and taboos tackled as words, actions and themes once anathema to the stage are brought to light in triumphant form.
Speaking about the show, Heesom said: “I’m delighted to be sharing the stage with Sara Alexander again—she is the perfect Clitoris, as she fills me with joy, and this time we get to dance too, as we’re working with the legendary Liz Ranken, founder member of the inspirational DV8 physical theatre company. I’m so excited about this show. It’s great to be working with my partner-in-crime Donnacadh again—he’s the only man I’d trust with putting my wondrous vulva on the stage!”
In a nod to its obvious potential Killing Eve producers, Sid Gentle, are already working with Heesom to adapt the play for television. Of the project, executive producer Sally Woodward Gentle commented: “Her refreshing and radical honestly is compelling.” Fellow executive producer Gina Mingacci added: “Bella is a wildly exciting new voice who has written a story that will resonate truthfully not just with women, but with anyone who has struggled to understand who they are.”
The play’s ending is cathartic, not just for its performers but also the onlooking audience. Both characters learn to accept themselves as they bravely strip off naked in front of the crowd.
The show is followed by a discussion session with Heesom and Alexander, in which the whole theatre is invited to participate. Amid a squishy stage floor and lashings of bean bags, spectators are invited to open up.
It’s an interesting curveball and perhaps not for everyone. It seems, however, shows like Heesom’s can benefit from allowing audiences to air their views over issues still somewhat under-discussed and misunderstood.
Overall this show is punchy and satisfyingly concise. What are you waiting for? Go forth, rejoice in the wondrousness of the vulva…
Rejoicing at Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself is playing at Ovalhouse, London, until May 25.