Marisa Carnesky and her group of Menstruants have created a fantastically provocative and hilarious show which seeks to undo the taboos surrounding menstruation. This group of eight daring performers each present work reflecting their own relationships with menstruation, drawing on inspiration from a series of retreats in Southend planned to align with the lunar cycle.
The individual performances reference modern concepts of magic (think magicians and rabbits), while Dr. Carnesky presents research on the ancient rituals of menstrual magic in the field of Radical Anthropology. Her research follows the line of thinking that the magic of menstruation rituals has been stolen by men (probably around the time of Jesus’ crucifixion), and must be reclaimed through female solidarity. Carnesky’s presentation of her actual academic research in this field is sharp and witty; made even more so by its self-parodying of the academic style.
Many of the performances refer to the relationship between women and violence, particularly images closely associated with the horror genre. The performances, though varied in many ways, had an undertone of sensuality which was used to subvert the disgust periods are routinely faced with. Carnesky has said that “It’s up to the audience to figure out which blood is fake and which isn’t,” but it is the sheer quantity of blood on stage which is an initial shock. The show’s very intelligent use of parody prevented this from becoming either excessive or worn.
The constant shifts between the academic and the carnivalesque were brilliant and absurd, held together by the flawlessness of Carnesky’s performance. I felt that the form of the show was one of its greatest strengths: the magic show genre constantly draws attention to the body as a site of mystery, and the faux secrecy of magic shows are matched by the enforced secrecy of menstruation.
Though incorporating familiar magic show themes – rabbits, sword swallowing, and hair hanging – the personal source for each piece was clear. H Plewis, as she explained, collected her menstrual blood to make into jelly in rabbit moulds. MisSa Blue swallowed a sword which related to the day of her cycle in its length, having discovered through a serious accident that the swelling of the oesophagus during the menstrual cycle puts female sword swallowers at risk. Priya Mistry and Nao Nagai’s pieces utilised the comedy of the strange and unnecessary shame surrounding periods, while Rhyannon Styles, Molly Beth Morossa, and Fancy Chance explored the darker, more anxious side of menstruation.
The connecting of Carnesky’s presentations with each of the individual performances as one giant variety show was helped by the effective use of music, which drew on different circus and showcase styles to reinforce the individual identities. Towards the end of the show, however, the performers’ combined pieces felt to be a little disordered, or less sharp in their transitions. The scattered ending slightly diverted from what ought to have been a very climactic, and euphoric ending.
This occasional lack of polish did however feel like the natural style of the performance, as it made the personal processes behind each very clear. The much more personal storytelling towards the end of the show was an important reminder of what all this comedy was for: to attack the source of shame at the heart of this issue. H Plewis’ baby Sula – the youngest Menstruant – made a cameo appearance to demonstrate the vitality and positivity of periods. Plewis’ video on their activist group The Menstronauts, who use menstrual rituals to recalibrate their relationship to the earth’s cycles, helped to firmly ground the show in the very broad political issues surrounding menstruation.
As the focus of a recent Guardian article on the resurgence of menstrual blood in art, I have no doubt that Dr. Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman will make waves with its bold and hilarious approach to bleeding. It is in equal measure intelligent and silly. As Carnesky turned to the audience and asked if anyone there was menstruating, the show revealed its capacity to impact the audience on a personal level – as the best theatre should.
I was curious to know what male audience members thought of the performance, and was surprised to discover men sitting near me were openly uncomfortable with the quantity of blood (and the enthusiasm for it) on stage. This led me to wonder whether the show could make someone uncomfortable with menstruation become completely open towards it through means such as these. But I certainly felt that the show has real power to help women love their periods and their bodies more. This could in turn force society to drop this most stubborn of taboos.
Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman is on at Soho Theatre until 7 January. For more information and tickets please see here.