The clue’s in the name with this one.
Bella Heesom’s Rejoicing at Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself is a celebration of all things vaginal, examining shame, pleasure, and self-loathing. Heesom makes deeply personal work, and in this piece she asks, “why would a confident 21st century woman feel inadequate when talking to her partner about sex?”. It’s an important question that taps into the internalised misogyny lying within all of us. The show tracks a journey of female sexual growth from puberty, looking at the untruths that girls are told from an early age: only boys masturbate, female genitals are repulsive, sex = penis in vagina, your virginity is precious… unfortunately, the list goes on.
This isn’t your everyday two-hander. In the cast list, Heesom is listed as ‘Brain/Ego’, and the other performer, Sara Alexander, is listed as ‘Clitoris/Appetite’. As Clitoris and Brain, the two performers engage in some hilarious interactions which draw attention to how the body and brain can often be at odds with one another, particularly in the difficult early stages of sexual development. The device is used particularly well during a scene in which the teenage Heesom attempts to talk to a boy she likes, but is constantly interrupted by Clitoris being all too vocal about her visceral sexual urges.
As Ego and Appetite, the pair engage in powerful physical sequences directed by DV8 co-founder Liz Ranken. These moments of intertwining limbs are animalistic, intentional, and always tell a story. Heesom and Alexander are wonderful to watch. They have an admirable chemistry and personal trust between them that allows them to get up close and personal on stage, which feels necessary for the show to make the point that it wants to. A closing image of the two embracing, naked, standing in a stream, is particularly memorable.
The show is set against stunning design by Elizabeth Harper. The stage is covered in dirt – or ‘patriarchal bullshit’ – which is flung around to satisfying visual effect during angry physical sequences. There is a tree swing reminiscent of childhood playfulness, and hanging plants which trail and frame the stage space. Harper also designs the projections shown on the back wall, which present a variety of ideas to be critiqued. Sound design by Candice Weaver also serves to heighten the world of the play, with noughties hits like Rihanna’s ‘Rude Boy’. Hearing the phrase ‘boy I want want want what you want want want’ on loop forces you to consider what it really means: that male sexual desire comes first. Direction and dramaturgy by Donnacadh O’Briain, and assistant direction by Martha J. Baldwin, lend a steady ebb and flow to the piece. The constantly fluctuating form has the potential to feel disjointed, but they manage to create and maintain connectedness and movement.
This is a show that breaks down stereotypes. For me, it doesn’t necessarily say anything new, but it may well do for somebody else. It is uplifting, positive, powerful – and unapologetically feminist.
Rejoicing at Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself is playing at Ovalhouse Theatre until 25 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Ovalhouse website.