Sara Juli’s Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis

Thu 3rd – Sun 27th August 2017

reviews

Katherine Knight

at 13:35 on 14th Aug 2017

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I am sitting on the second row of a small auditorium amongst acquaintances, watching a collection of ten dildos vibrating in sequence on the floor. One has just been passed around the audience, and is currently moving by itself across the stage. I clutch the Viennese Whirls which have just been passed to me, and wonder how we got here.

Sara Juli takes on many roles in this one-woman show, but, as in real life, these are all centred around the one: mother. Juli introduces it as ‘play about incontinence’ (giving you leave to go to the bathroom whenever you’d like without judgement), and you are dutifully guided through a course of pelvic floor strengthening exercises – I had never heard of a kegel before today, and now feel well prepared for the future.

Juli tends for the audience for an expression which is often unfathomable, caught between affection, laughter, and sadness. Tends is definitely the word – snacks are given out, shoelaces tied, noses blown, and she even takes one audience member on her lap – all without explanation. In a way, this is a realistic portrayal of a mother figure: always watching, always attending, and never with explanation of sense of repayment. It’s an awe-inspiring hour, an actor-audience relationship which is never seen on the stage and which you are left bemused, wondering how you came to be a child again.

Not that Juli is by any means a perfect mother, and she never claims to be. As the lights darken and turn to blue – one of a number of technically brilliant moments – she lies on the floor in a moment of repose. It’s a mesmerising moment, and you’re exhausted just watching her endless scurrying about, her childish calls which turn into an atmospheric collusion.

It’s a play suffused with lightness and humour. There is a rendition of a Disney hit; there is a rave, complete with flashing lights; there is mooing as she kneels on all fours, bottles hanging from her chest. So much so that it is sometimes difficult to tell what the take away message actually is – to teach us about our bodies, an autobiographical piece? It all comes together at the end, although hints are seen throughout: in order to be successful mothers, we need to look after ourselves first. And, more implicitly: motherhood does not simply turn you into a vessel caring for others. Self-care is important – whether it be in pleasure or more basic bodily functions – and there is no shame in solving these problems for oneself. Perhaps if we realised this, we’d all have felt a little less awkward handling the dildo.

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Jessica Lord

at 14:08 on 14th Aug 2017

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Sometimes theatrical concepts are so abstract, that they are totally unreachable to those who are intended to consume them. For me personally, this is what happened here. ‘Tense Vagina’ is a one-woman, post-modern piece about urinary incontinence, motherhood, and what it means to be a woman. Although impressively acted by Sara Juli, I just didn’t really get it and struggled with the constant breaking and reforming of the fourth wall. It was completely original, don’t get me wrong, but it was also just so bizarre, I felt confused and a little unsettled as I left the auditorium.

Using dildos as a form of percussion, occasionally changing pinafore to reflect the vaginal situation, and using breast pumps as a prop are all things I have never seen before, and will probably never see again. It was true Fringe theatre: weird, highly abstract, and very unique.

I found the metaphor of women as mooing cows simply producing milk a little disconcerting, and I didn’t enjoy the intensity of some of the repetition. I just really struggled to connect with the vision of the artist, and the constant audience instruction to kegel was just too forceful for me.

I did, however, like the fussing of the audience during one of the scenes about motherhood. Watching Juli bother different audience members, tying shoelaces, wiping faces, rocking them to sleep was a strange experience but definitely worked as a dramatic device. The constancy of Juli’s voice was very overpowering and intense, which worked well as a personification of the intensity and relentlessness of motherhood.

Sara Juli as an actress is very impressive. The use of her entire body, and ability to co-ordinate her voice, facial expressions, and her audience interaction without it seeming jarred or incoherent is a sign of a very talented actress. I just felt that the concept was so post-modern and confused, it was difficult to appreciate her natural talent.

I must add before concluding that for me, I think theatre like this perpetuates negative stereotypes and conflates misunderstandings of feminism. I think the biggest issue that modern feminism faces is being tarnished with extremism. I think a piece of theatre about this subject is fantastic, but it needs to be accessible to everyone, and I don’t think this was.

Although I love the premise, and I think we need to tackle the social taboo surrounding loneliness during motherhood and health issues such as female urinary infections, I honestly think this wasn’t the best way to go about doing it. Having said this, I’m almost certain I’ll never again pass a dildo around an auditorium, and it was worth seeing this production just for that experience.

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