PREFACE: In Sofia Coppola’s movie The Virgin Suicides, a teenage boy goes to the house of the Lisbon family and dines with them. Using their ‘restroom’ during the evening, his curiousity leads him to a particular cupboard. Inside: boxes and boxes of tampons. Then it clicks – the five Lisbon girls are ALL menstruating! (The importance of this is mentioned later.) In recent years there have been many shows that have touched on aspects of the female experience, but menstruation is still seldom tackled. So why this ‘silence’? Throughout history, it would be ‘diplomatic’ to say most cultures have had an ambivalent relationship to menstruation. While the West may have lost its apprehension from a religious standpoint, the cultural unease is still very much present. How often has ‘the time of the month’ been refered to as ‘the Curse’/monthly visitor/Code Red/On the rag? All sound cringeworthy and far from being neutral or euphemistic, reveals the disparaging nature of language itself. Which leads us to Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman…
It would be hard to pigeonhole this show. Part ‘lecture’, part ‘alt-cabaret’ experience, Incredible Bleeding Woman gives a potted history of the historical and religious influences on menstruation’s ‘place’ in culture. Even in today’s mythologies, there are references to the simultaneous ‘life-giving’ qualities and ‘unease’ regarding menstruation, such as in Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles where Lestat partakes of menses straught from the source… If there were just words alone, the show would be much shorter. However, as a way to ‘ make the word, flesh’, Carnesky employs her ‘Menstruants’ – performers from various disciplines in the field of cabaret and performance art –to graphically illustrate the points made throughout the show. Artistes such as MisSa Blue have an array of swords for ‘swallowing’ – suitable in length for each day of the month, while H Plewis uses jelly in her act made from a very ‘special substance’. ‘Hair hanging’ also makes an appearence, as well as traditional stagecraft ‘magic’.
As part of their bonding experience, the ‘Menstruants’ spent three months together previously in Southend, sharing with each other the full gamut of female experiences – fertility, menopause, miscarriages and transgender identity – and which all feature to some degree in the performance-making. One of the studies that Carnesky highlights is the synchronicity of women’s ‘cycles’ when they spend extended time together – something that Carnesky was keen to put to the test and found evidence to some degree. As part of the troupe, Rhyannon Styles – who also has the distinction of being the first transgender journalist at Elle magazine – noted that there was some correlation between her energy levels and emotions with the mentstrual days of her peers. Of course there is a subtext – are women not ‘real women’ if they don’t menstruate, if they’re infertile? Of course not. But that is, undoubtedly, a pressure many women feel today, affecting their identity – their sense of self and completeness.
If upon watching Incredible Bleeding Woman you find it a lot to take in, when you go home, scour the internet for references relating to menstruating and culture. You’d be amazed by how much is written about, but not talked about ‘within polite circles’. In today’s society, the powers-that-be in Britain certainly don’t have any respect for it – labelling women’s sanitary towels as ‘non-essential luxury goods’ and taxing them at 5%. As the number of ‘food banks’ has grown exponentially across Britain (approx. 700% in the past two years), for people who are reliant on them – and indeed for the survivors of the Grenfell fire – the items that are most needed but seldom provided are women’s sanitary products. While the crimson ebb-and-flow is indelibly part of every woman’s life at some point, menstruation is not even ‘taboo’ because apparently it doesn’t exist. Incredible Bleeding Woman does its damndest to dispel this ‘myth’.
© Michael Davis 2017
CAST: Marisa Carnesky, Fancy Chance, Rhyannon Styles, MisSa Blue, H Plewis, Sula Marjorie Plewis Robin and Nao Nagai.
Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman runs at Underbelly Festival, Southbank until 25th June (7.30pm). It will also be performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at Pleasance from 2nd – 28th August.