So did one billion rise? It is hard to tell. In the UK this was partly because the main news channels did not appear to perceive this worldwide campaign to highlight and protest against rape and violence against one billion women per year to be a ‘top’ story. Indeed for the BBC it appears to have barely been a story at all.
It is also hard to tell how many people took part because of the diffused and inclusive nature of this protest (very much in line with both established feminist and internet generation practices)
What is evident from the web coverage on the day and from reports by international new teams is that events did take place across the globe in major cities and in small towns from Africa to Poland, Australia to Israel, Albania to Egypt, the Americas to Turkey, Austria to India and in many, many more countries. These took the form of dances, singing and performances of all kinds, short films, marches, human chains and debates and they encompassed the sombre and the serious, the joyful and the silly, sometimes involving thousands of participants, sometimes just a handful.
While in the mainstream UK news inevitably, it was often the celebrity events which garnered most attention, dipping in and out of the Guardian live blog during the course of the day the protest I found most compelling was the one in Kabul. 100 Afghan women and men marched rather than danced because this was more appropriate to their Muslim culture, and they did so in the threatening presence of heavily armed riot police. This suggests that it might have taken more courage to organise and participate in this ‘rising’ than in some other places. For me the images of this event and comments made by participants created a sense of connection to this city very different to its usual role on British television news as ‘enemy territory’.
These images running through my head, in Lancaster on the night of the 14th I went to see the production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues produced by students from the University at The Sugerhouse, as part of the One Billion Rising campaign.
I have to admit that back in the 1990s when I first came across this piece I was critical not only of some of its qualities as drama but also aspects of its feminist politics. This was partly a product of the way theatre scholarship at the time ( my own included) was insisting on defining political theatre primarily in terms of non -realist aesthetics that created ‘ironic distance’ from the spectacle. In terms of feminism this was also linked to drive towards a degree of theoretical purity . The Vagina Monologues seeks to create emotional identification both with its characters and its cause in a way that ran counter to these positions.
When it comes to both theatre and to feminism I have (I hope) with age become less judgmental and dismissive in my thinking. Having said this, watching this production of The Vagina Monologues despite thoughtful, witty, extremely funny, heart felt and often subtle interpretations by its strong ensemble cast, I still find some of the characters sketched by the monologues a little obvious, even clichéd (even more so perhaps due to the passage of time) and the metaphors employed in the writing sometimes overblown, the tone occasionally sentimental.
However, I now recognise that like the play’s frequent and still highly effective use of humour, these factors may be necessary to ensure broad accessibility in countering the (for some audiences) occasionally challenging nature of its content, although in the UK at least, where speaking of vajazlling has became commonplace, over the years the exact nature of this challenge has changed.
One way or another its format has allowed The Vagina Monologues to speak to very large numbers of very different women in many countries, and to function as one of the focal points for a global grass roots activist movement campaigning against violence against women.
In short, it has proved to be a highly effective piece of political theatre, not least that it has been especially notable for attracting young women to this cause during a period when even the mention of the word feminism has often seemed anathema to anyone under forty.
The advantages of this show as part of grass roots activism were very much in evidence at The Sugarhouse, which is the off-campus Student Union social space. As a series of monologues it is adaptable and undemanding to stage. It can easily be performed by a cast of one, or as in this instance of 40 odd, with some sections of the text being delivered solo and others being split up and shared between up to five voices.
Its structure as a series of short vignettes, each with a different focus mood, pace and energy is relatively undemanding for its audience and allows for widespread appeal. You might not like all of the sections but you will probably enjoy some of them.
On this point I did find myself wondering about the response of this mostly late teens/early twenties, mixed gender mostly British audience to the monologue in praise of pubic hair. From what I gather about current UK cultural attitudes to body hair it struck me that for this generation this paean to pubes might actually far more schocking than the later repeated shouting out the C word. In fact, I wondered if some of the lads might be surprised to hear that ‘in the wild’ vaginas actually come with hair attached.
This aside, the vignette structure also suits minimal staging and costume. In this case most of the cast all wore One Billion Rising T shirts over something black (leggings, skirts, trousers, shorts) from their own wardrobe.
Similarly, the show doesn’t really require a formal theatre. One of the reasons this particular production worked so well was that it took place in this rather shabby space primarily used for drinking and dancing on a small, temporary thrust stage, close to the audience and with the cast sitting on cushions on the floor either side.
All of this helped create a relaxed, intimate atmosphere and ultimately a sense of vital engagement with the piece and a relationship between cast and audience that celebrated the shows pleasures as a theatrical performance but also underlined its significance as part of a larger political event, beyond the limits of the stage.
I suspect she will not forgive me for mentioning it -but this was underlined by the moment in Emily Jones’s otherwise poised and polished solo performance of ‘The Woman Who Loved to Make Vagina’s Happy’, when she forgot her lines and had to come out of character to ask for a prompt. This produced wild cheers from the rest of the cast and applause and gales of sympathetic laughter from the audience which in turn prompted Jones to succumb to an infectious attack of the giggles.
It was not that getting the show absolutely ‘right’ did not matter to the cast. It was clear that the production was the result of rigorous and imaginative rehearsal and the sense of commitment to this piece on the part of individual performers was palpable. It was more that everyone concerned, cast and audience were aware that far more was at stake in this event than this show as a piece of theatre. As part of One Billion Rising, the whole evening genuinely felt less a matter of dramatic communication between performers and audience and more that of a community gathering in solidarity with each other and as importantly (symbolically) with other protesters around the world.
As the finale of the show, the ‘directing team’ performed a piece of text specially written as part of One Billion Rising. When the cast raised their arms in a gesture associated with this campaign the whole audience immediately joined in, creating a spontaneous moment of collective silence. This was followed by a song composed and performed by two members of the cast and this time the audience were asked to stand when it finished if they had been the victim of sexual violence, or if they knew someone who had. Again as the song finished, as one the cast and audience rose to our feet.
These were the sort of emotionally, highly charged moments traditionally viewed with suspicion by those interested in theatre and politics, and who have tended to favour performances that promote ‘rational’ thinking. This was before the vast majority of political philosophers admitted the impossibility of entirely distinguishing between ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ in the first place and equally that, whatever the claims to the contrary, all politics, at all levels are to a significant extent fuelled by emotion.
Having said that, sitting at my desk in Lancaster I do not get the sense that the ‘revolution’ imagined by the organisers of the One Billion Rising has happened… yet….
I also think that some of the keenness of the emotions expressed and provoked in the moments of ‘performing’ these protests will dissipate and fade. Nevertheless, I believe ( I hope) that the feelings of solidarity with each other and with ‘others’ not present, in standing against a wrong (that is not natural or inevitable) that took place in the Sugarhouse Lancaster and in so many other places all over the world, might yet function as rehearsals for (potential) revolution(s) in the making.
For the Vagina Monologues Lancaster.
Head Director: Sam Aldridge
Assistant Directors: Floss Edward, Sophia Spiropoulus and Fani Neophytou.
Cast (in order of appearance)
Catherine Sturman, Hannah Dean Jessica Ferguson, Jade Podmore, Alexandra Reindorp, Lizzy Davis, Lizzie Houghton, Becky Phillips, Emmy McIntyre, Camille Hargarden, Charlotte Blatt, Rachael Mellor, Zoe Anderson, Katie Capstick, Bethany Cleaver, Georgie Sykes, Vanessa Hanson, Alyson Davies, Stacey Isaac, Rosalia O’Reilly, Denise Atzinger, Arththi Sathananthar, Bethany Jones, Chloe Hounsom, Felicity Robertson, Lucy Bailey, Kiera Wilkins, Jenna Peddar, Libby Borton, Alicia Holdsworth, Josie O’Gorman, Libby Martin, Ellie Best, Emily Jones, Annabelle Blackburn, LA, Caz Dick.