There is an épater-les-bourgeois thrill to seeing posters proclaiming The Vagina Monologues bedeck the West End; conversely, a full and accurate review of Eve Ensler's one-woman show – last seen in London two years ago and now returned to the New Ambassadors – would sorely tax the most liberal of editors.
It is a slightly odd experience to review Ensler's piece as a man: one has to get past one's resentment at the paucity of decent men who appear in her tales, or one's puzzlement at not getting some of the gags ("If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?", she asked the 200-plus women she has interviewed, aged from 6 to 72; a big female laugh greeted the answer, "Glasses"... I'm sorry?). Rather more embarrassing to hear the audible difference in gender response: the relatively few men in the packed house tend to persist in either schoolboy giggles or long-suffering sighs, as if unconsciously still trying to trivialise the goings-on and perhaps a little threatened by so many women being themselves. For Ensler's entire thesis is that "down there" defines a woman, but women never get the chance to talk about it, and some have even lived their entire lives without looking at it. She creates monologues from her interviews with women ranging from a lawyer-turned-lesbian dominatrix to a Bosnian rape camp victim and, she says, "I let their stories live in me."
This is where matters turn a little problematic: we cannot tell how much of any given monologue is derived directly from interview (whether from a single one or from a group of them conflated) and how much is Ensler consciously fashioning the material or simply taking it as a source of inspiration for words of her own – although the phrase "I wrote this for [whoever]," heard several times during the 90 minutes, may give a hint. Some of the sections, such as the one on the taboo c-word entitled "Reclaiming 'Cunt'" and even parts of what she intends as the big-finale account of being present at the birth of her grandchild, partake of frankly the worst kind of precious performance poetry; others, like a street-woman's account of learning to love her "coochie-snorcher", have a simple eloquent directness.
Ensler, perched on a stool in her black dress and Louise Brooks bob, using a microphone and with a set of cue cards in her lap, is more a writer and presenter than a performer: apart from a few erratic accents, her delivery is the same for each piece, and accompanied by the same vocabulary of gestures to emphasise the. Weight. She. Gives. To every. Important. Word. Bunny Christie's red set is a kind of three-dimensional Rothko with occasional back-projections of an orchid or (gosh) the world (although I hope I am alone in finding that the combination of set and lighting quickly led to a severe headache even in one not usually susceptible to such stimuli). But whatever its weakness, The Vagina Monologues functions less as a piece of theatre than of affirmation and testimony, and on that score, after several years as an international sensation, it is quite unassailable.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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