With its promise of ‘Brain and Clitoris sparring for power’, I really wanted to rave about Bella Heesom’s play. Sadly, I can’t. The production values are high, the performances are solid, the observations witty and knowing. But Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself is a series of interstitials attacking straw-man platitudes drawn from the greatest hits of sexism with which no one in the audience was ever going to agree. An hour of this performance is like beholding the world’s most magically-produced Ted Talk, not a night at the theatre.
This work has not managed to leap the chasm from a wonderful self-exposing essay into theatrical transcendence. And yet it can’t avoid observing certain conventions despite its proclamations of ‘experimentalism’. The action opens on the lead character talking to someone; a compelling story of her unhappiness and discomfort. It’s easy to think she’s condemning another as she wrestles with her internalisation of perceived social norms that restrict female sexuality. Rather than exploring who she is and what she feels, rather squeamishly we’re whisked away to gallop through at least half a dozen limiting myths that some may have heard or believe from childhood until we all metaphorically slay the internalised beast. We get it. No trowels are provided but the message is thickly unsubtle and the structure both formulaic but not particularly satisfying as melodrama. If we remember we’re in a lecture, this lack of nuance can be forgiven because the illustrative sketches and production values of Donnacadh O’Briain’s direction are so good. But just in case we didn’t get it, we’re invited to a rap session amongst cushions and cocktails afterwards to share our reactions and experiences and (presumably) validate and fuel the creative process. It feels very festival and not necessarily a performing arts one.
Whilst anatomy’s correct terminology is celebrated and costumes come off with bold, physical and committed performances, there is very little in this show that at its core is challenging or daring. This ‘exploration of female sexuality’ (which for some reason is depicted as a singular and universally heterosexual western European experience) is surprisingly timid. ‘Ego’ and ‘Appetite’ are set largely in opposition to each other like some funky explainer video of Cartesian dualism. This play climaxes with a rite of self-acceptance but its journey towards a forgiving and nuanced whole appears like Deus Ex Machina because the work has more or less skirted nuance. There is little self-revealing vulnerability of a specific character up to this point. As such, this great visual-feast of a blog post may excite some in the audience but does little to foster the intimate emotional connection that marks dramatic or comedic potency.
Certain points are beautifully made and likely to inspire enthusiastic identification, but: the opportunity to dramatise or characterise them is missed and thus the impact beyond the cerebral is sadly lost. My beef is not one of genre or form preference. Aspects of this work are hilarious and wonderfully depicted and other moments are indeed moving. However, the author’s unwillingness to invest in a specific character or story means the voice of this work comes across as assumptive when it proclaims the universal or mythic without dwelling more than a few moments on anything particularly personal. It is odd to undertake an ‘exploration of female sexuality’ that is so generalised and remote. Likewise, the blunt instrument of ‘male gaze’ used interchangeably with ‘patriarchy’ (and, from context, more accurately denoting ‘social control’), is a mysterious and vague antagonist. Important points come across as facile and all the more for the presumptuous, omniscient tone adopted rather than speaking with intimacy from the self; any character’s self. As such, Wondrous Vulva is full of ideas and indeed moments of charm but it nonetheless exists firmly in a world of essay – and a distant and somewhat simplistic one at that.
I can understand why the Arts Council would want to fund this show. Without question, it is the work of a talented ensemble helmed by a skilled artist with much to say. However, more refinement from raw fringe sketch has not led to a coherent or profound theatrical experience. It has delivered a very nicely produced showcase of juvenilia filtered through appealing chat rather than dramatisation. It was infuriating that Bella Heesom couldn’t sit still long enough in any personification and commit to building a character with whom we can identify over the long-haul… through trials and epiphany. Instead, the energy is directed towards one heavy-handed agit-prop after another. No matter how amusing or perceptive some of the shtick is (and some of it is very winning), the acts still have the vibe of public service announcements produced by the ‘edgy’ creative team. As PSA, this work is brilliant and gives voice to the under-represented. As an evening of theatrical entertainment, it’s simply not fully fledged.
Whilst there are changes of pace and mood that are affecting, this is an assembly of words and ideas – documentary and treatise – and no amount of Sophoclean monologue, no matter how wonderfully Sara Alexander delivers it (and her delivery is pretty phenomenal!) can overcome that we are in a lecture. A very good, well-presented and well-observed lecture, but a lecture nonetheless.
The unapologetic didacticism of the piece is underscored by the post-interval ‘consciousness-raising’ session where the cast and creators invite the audience to partake in an experience that feels half-12 Steps/half qualitative market research.
Bella Heesom is a skilled performer and her undertaking is ambitious to a scale that merits admiration. I now want her to stop ‘experimenting’ and tell me a story. But in this work, for now, she remains safe in making lists of the ways sexual and social repression are troubling, unfair and counterproductive, rather than building a world and devising dramatic conflict and resolution into which I can invest emotionally.
Wondrous Vulva’s sound (by Candice Weaver) and lighting design (by Jess Bernberg) are first class and create a very intriguing tableau. Both Heesom’s and Alexander’s performances are bold and decisive.
Some sermons can be wonderfully delivered. The set, lighting and Gaia-festival vibe of bare flesh on chipped cork makes for strong spectacle but sadly precious little story.
The brains behind this show are big and talented. But ironically this show uses spectacle to mask its reticence and over-simplification rather than do the hard yards of plotting and characterisation to give us true connection. It’s perfectly logical an indy production company would paper a TV development deal with Heesom. (After all, who isn’t hunting for ‘the next Fleabag’?) Perhaps within the confines of a 6-part 30-minute series, Heesom will develop a story arc and characters with whom we can spend more time before being rushed to the next ‘message’. I hope so. As a play, Wondrous Vulva feels much more like a visualised Podcast for collective musing. These artists are talented, committed and have much to say. I think we will see more of both Bella Heesom and Sara Alexander and for that reason alone it’s worth checking out their work. It may well be the scribbling of early greatness – it’s just not there yet.
Review by Mary Beer
Combining intimate stories, comic dialogues, and – when words feel like a cage – dance, 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. Male gaze may have influenced how we see ourselves and how we engage with sexuality, but what even IS the female gaze? Bella Heesom’s personal journey through how she got to think and behave the way she did, and then turned around and questioned it all, is played out as a tug of war between brain and clitoris; the intellectual vs the sensual, in a celebration of what it means to be the proud owner of a vulva.
Why would a confident, 21st century woman feel inadequate when talking to her partner about sex? Featuring really helpful 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’.
Suitable for ages 12 +
Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain Written by Bella Heesom
Movement direction by Liz Ranken
Design by Elizabeth Harper
Lighting Design by Jess Bernberg
Produced by Hannah Elsy Productions
Cast: Bella Heesom and Sara Alexander
Ovalhouse and All About You present:
Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself
Brain and clitoris spar for power in Bella Heesom’s taut new comic exploration of female sexuality.
Written by Bella Heesom | Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain
Ovalhouse, 52 – 54 Kennington Oval, London SE11 5SW
9 – 25 May, Tuesday-Saturday, 7.30pm