Caro Meets Dance & Physical Interview Theatre Interview

Bella Heesom: Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself

By | Published on Friday 10 May 2019

You may remember that last week we suggested you pop along to Ovalhouse to see ‘Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself’. Having done that, we decided that just one tip wasn’t enough to shed light on this fab show.

I wanted to find out more about it, and what inspired it, so arranged a chat with creator Bella Heesom.

CM: So… let’s get straight in there with the subject of the show – what happens in it? Is there a narrative?
BH: Yes. At its heart it’s the story of a woman coming home to herself. It starts with a moment of crisis, in which a woman feels inadequate and insecure around sex, and then jumps back to her youth to explore how she got there.

We see snapshots of formative moments in her adolescence, and it becomes clear that she began life feeling connected to her body and her desire, and happy pursuing her natural curiosity and craving for pleasure, but as she absorbed the many messages society sent her – you are a sex object, female genitals are gross, only boys masturbate, virginity is precious etc, she gradually suppressed that side of herself, until she was completely disconnected from her animalistic sexual appetite, and was habitually performing a fake ‘sexiness’ to win approval from others.

Then we see the process of revelation that allows her to move forward and learn to accept herself and embrace her inner lioness. It’s a story of hope. I play the rational side of the girl, her ego, and Sara Alexander plays the instinctive side, her appetite, and it’s essentially a love story between the two of us.

CM:What themes does the show explore?
BH: Body image, gender, desire – specifically the taboo of female desire and sexual appetite, and the conflict between our natural instincts and the pressure we feel from society.

CM: How did you come up with that, um, descriptive title?
BH: It’s a quote from a story about Inanna, an ancient Sumerian sex goddess. I read about her during my research, and I fell in love with that line, ‘rejoicing at her wondrous vulva the young woman, Inanna, applauded herself’ because it seemed so radical in its outrageous lack of modesty, let alone shame. Rejoicing AND wondrous AND applauded herself?! Woah! I wanted to channel that energy. The title was almost a challenge to myself to write a show that lived up to it and gave the audience that sense of possibility that I felt when I read it. Also, it annoys me that people use the word vagina when they mean Vulva, not least because I think Vulva is a much nicer word.

CM: Are there autobiographical elements?
BH: Yes. Not everything in the play has happened to me, and I did a lot of research and interviewed different women, because I wanted to tap into something universal, but the piece is rooted in autobiography. All of the scenes are an attempt to express something I’ve felt at one time or another.

CM: What made you want to create a show focusing on this particular topic? What was the inspiration for it?
BH: It just seemed crazy to me that I hardly ever see sex presented from a female perspective. There is so much sex in the media, but almost all of it is from a straight male perspective, and objectifies women. Women are frequently sexualised, but in a way that is about whether they are attractive or titillating to men, not in a way that acknowledges their desire, or presents them as active, as people pursuing their own pleasure. And I think that leads to a lot of quiet, secret shame for women around their own feelings of desire.

CM: How did you begin the creative process? Did you just sit down and write?
BH: It was a slow burn. The research was key, and for a while I just followed my nose down different avenues that came up in my reading and enjoyed exploring things without knowing if or how they might fit into the piece. I would write bits and pieces of text without knowing how they would fit into the whole. It was very different to how I worked on my last play. It felt almost transgressive, to be following my interests and my instincts without a clear plan or structure. It was very liberating.

I also got into a room with Sara and Donnacadh (O’Briain, The director and dramaturg) and tried things out. We discussed our lives and did improvisations and put bits of text on their feet, and then I would go away and write some more, and then we’d do it all again. And Sara and I did a bunch of scratch nights, where we would do 20 minutes of material in front of audience to see if it worked. Then last year we did three First Bite shows in the upstairs studio at Ovalhouse, which were work in progress, but a lot more developed – about an hour long, and the response was amazing, and they commissioned the full show that is now happening!

CM: What made you want to incorporate a dance element to the show and how did the process work?
BH: I wanted to find a way of communicating female experience in all its ambiguity, and I found that the use of language was limiting me in that quest. It forced me to express things in a linear, logical manner. I’m very good at that – I studied philosophy at Cambridge – I can do logic. But my feelings around pleasure and desire and shame are not that neat. They’re messy and complex and fluid. Pinning them down with one specific set of words felt like over simplifying my truth. So I wanted to explore communicating with my body – telling stories through movement. It allows a more visceral expression that doesn’t have to make sense. And it allows the audience to relate to it in a deeply personal way, because there is space for their own interpretation.

Sara is far more connected to her body than me, so it came quite naturally to her to express herself in that way. I was nervous about it, as I’m not a trained dancer, but we worked with Liz Ranken, who is one of the founding members of physical theatre company DV8, whose work I love, and she was wonderful. She didn’t choreograph steps, she led us in improvisations, and helped us pull out the most effective things we found through experimentation, and hone them into set sequences. It was an incredibly freeing experience to work with her, and connect with my intuitive side more.

CM: The last time we spoke to you, it was about your much acclaimed ‘My World Has Exploded A Little Bit’. Is that show been put to bed now, or can you see yourself bringing it back at any point?
BH: I would be very happy to bring it back if the opportunity arose. It’s a show I’m proud of, and a lot of people who saw it told me they found it very useful. I think death is another topic that is under discussed in our society. There has been some interest in developing it into a feature film, so you never know…

CM: Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
BH: Yes, my company All About You, plan to make a play about the pain of forced vulnerability and the pleasure of choosing to help people. The working title is Arms Flung Wide, which is a line from a poem by my mum, Yasmin. The show will tell the story of her remarkable life, in which she overcame extreme hardships and suffering in her childhood with her remarkable determination and intelligence, only to be struck down by chronic illness as an adult, which eventually left her entirely dependent on other people. It will explore my relationship with her and her needs, and how much I chose to help her or didn’t. I will probably play myself and my mum, and in a bold metaphorical and literal exploration of what it is like to ask for help, and to give help, I will be genuinely reliant on the help of the audience in order to do the show.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after this run at Ovalhouse?
BH: I’m currently developing ‘Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself’ for TV. Sid Gentle, the producers behind ‘Killing Eve’, have optioned the screen rights, so I’ll be working on the first script with them.

‘Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself’ is on at Ovalhouse until 25 May. See this page here for more.