Our Bodies, Our Selves – Ed Fringe 2023

Three body positive shows seen at Summerhall – High Steaks, A Spectacle of Herself, and Weathervanes

Sitting on a table in, appropriately enough, the Anatomy Lecture Theatre, Eloina Haines slowly removes the mirror placed in front of her vulva and opens her legs wide to reveal her labia. We are well into her show High Steaks, and the moment of reveal comes after much comic play with the audience that starts with her dashing into the space wearing an accordion as a dress, which is removed to reveal a green merkin made of parsley, with a pair of beef steaks dangling down either side. Surely the weirdest striptease ever seen… 

Eloina is a confident performer, and a rapport with the audience is established, Ed Fringe comedy style, right from the start. The wonkily-played accordion is a great ice-breaker. How are we? she asks. Then, What do we call our bits down there? Specifically, our labia. There are a few answers from the audience, then the recorded text kicks in: Fanny flaps, meat curtains, kebabs…  The very many meat references are why Eloina has the pair of prime steaks on board – dangled from her body, then removed, butchered, and (eventually) fried and served with chopped parsley. Her mum is on hand to help and support with the cooking – the two in conversation throughout.

High Steaks is a show about labia, labia-shaming, cosmetic surgery – and about celebrating what you’ve got, in all its unique beauty. Eloina has interviewed people far and wide, to gather up views on female genitalia from those who own them – those happy with their lot, and those with body dysmorphia. As we’d entered the space, we’d noticed the ‘vulva owners to the front’ signs – so the first two rows are taken up by women. Or by vulva owners, I should say. This is a trans positive show, and there is no assumption made that all women have vulvas and that no men do – the recorded verbatim soundbites include accounts by trans men describing their contentment with their vulvas. We learn also that testosterone makes the clitoris swell and grow so that it becomes like a mini-penis – no need for surgery! 

Talking of surgery, there is a lot of talk – both recorded and live from Eloina – about labiaplasty, the surgical procedure to reduce the size of, or to even up the size of, the labia – which are usually asymmetrical, this is completely normal. A procedure that the 10-year-old Eloina, despite coming from a liberal family with plenty of positive female role models, felt convinced she needed. A procedure that many young women feel they need, shamed by friends or by airbrushed images generated by the porn industry, believing something is wrong with their genitals. But this is no political diatribe – Eloina states her support of everyone’s right to choose any procedure that they feel they need; but she just wants to present the facts, so that people make informed choices. And here are the facts. There are two reasons for labiaplasty, medical and cosmetic – and there are more procedures done for cosmetic reasons than for medical reasons. Young women often don’t appreciate the range of ‘normality’ for shape and size of labia – as with earlobes, or any other body part. So Eloina is here to educate – to ‘raise a middle finger to butchering your body for the aesthetics of another’.

High Steaks is a joyful and celebratory show, with the balance held beautifully between the comedy, the creation of strong visual imagery (a moment where she sits cross-legged weaving her arms through the air makes me think of the Hindu goddess Durga), and a sober sharing of personal experiences and medical facts. In her lovingly-held command of the space, direct address to audience, and use of humour to explore issues around sexuality and body image, Eloina reminds me strongly of the legendary sex-positive performance artist Annie Sprinkle. And that can only be a good thing! Highly recommended for vulva-owners and everybody else.

Laura Murphy: A Spectacle of Herself. Photo Holly Revell

Also presenting autobiographical revelations in a body positive mode comes Laura Murphy with A Spectacle of Herself, seen in Summerhall’s Main Hall. In this case the spoken-word (and onscreen text) personal revelations are mixed with musings on space travel in general and Elon Musk’s derring-do’s in particular; and with the philosophy of ethnobotanist and mystic Terence McKenna. There are wise and wonderful words a-plenty, a number of lovely physical/visual vignettes set to great tunes, and some mighty fine aerial rope work. 

To start, we get McKenna’s words voiced by a whacky looking onscreen clown, looming larger than life over us. Imagine, says Terence through the medium of Laura-the-clown: there we are, a foetus in the womb, swimming freely, all our needs met. Then, the walls close in and we are squeezed out. ‘Our medium is meat’ says the voice; and, ‘matter is not lacking in magic, matter is magic’. Thus the notion is set up that our bodies are not some sort of incidental vehicle for our minds and spirits – we are physical, earthed, meaty beings. And how we feel about our bodies and choose to present our bodies is crucial to our existence.

A Spectacle of Herself is a confessional-autobiographical piece, but it is more – an exploration of gender identity and sexuality, of neurodivergence and vulnerability, worked through in a succession of scenes that delight, challenge and amuse in equal measure. There’s a ‘what side of the bed are you lying on?’ listing of likes and dislikes – on the plus side, strap-ons; on the minus side, deodorised vaginas that don’t smell like vaginas, to pick a couple of random examples. There’s a fabulous aerial rope section inspired by that old Diet Coke ad, where a room full of female office-workers swoon at the sight of a male window cleaner downing a can of Coke, whilst the Etta James’ classic ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ belts out. Laura wanted to be that guy, she tells us, and, topless with a white cloth tucked into her jeans pocket, she climbs her rope and commands the room. Reader, I swooned. There’s a fabulously surreal scene set to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’, where Laura puts a cardboard box on her head and repeatedly bonks the mic on the stand with her head, slowly descending down to the floor. Pure Dada. And the Macarena is danced to the tune of ‘Twenty Twenty Vision’ – which is great, a bit like that game they play on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue where they do the lyrics of one song to the tune of another. Dissonance a-go-go.

There is an ongoing motif of the space race and its inevitable link to male energy and ambition. Cue rockets soaring into the ether, and Laura in a white spacesuit in a fabulously slo-mo rope routine, seemingly defying gravity. There is lip-synching to Elon Musk’s voicing of his SpaceX plans – this done whilst crossing the stage on a hoverboard, pumping a balloon placed between her legs that grows into an enormous carnivalesque phallus.    

And to note that there is an absent character onstage – Laura’s partner Ruby, who is referred to constantly with love and appreciation – whether it’s walking their dog together, watching reality TV, holding the space for her when she has panic attacks, or having sex.

A Spectacle of Herself is constructed with care, skilfully directed by Ursula Martinez, and performed with panache by Laura Murphy. Yes, the personal is political; and yes, space is the final frontier. It just depends what sort of space we are talking about…   A gorgeous show, bursting with magical words, images, and actions. Matter is indeed magic. 

Laura Murphy: A Spectacle of Herself. Photo Holly Revell

Jian Yi’s Weathervanes describes itself as ‘a rethinking of the beautiful and what is holy’. Drawing on classical depictions of the nude, it re-stages those images as living sculptures – flesh rather than marble – ‘centering queer people of colour’. 

During the daytime, the piece is an installation, featuring light projections and multimedia FX (by Cryptic artist Heather Lander); material constructions (stone, mirrors, branches, leaves, water features) by sculptor/set designer Furmaan Ahmed; and a video work at the entrance depicting naked bodies moving with a meditative slowness, standing on balconies overlooking urban streets. At night, for two shows per evening, the space becomes activated by the addition of four performers – three naked living statues set on plinths, moving with a gentle, minimal precision; and a musician, who is sitting fully-dressed on the floor in a far room, surrounded by a range of different-sized Tibetan bowls and a mixer, creating a very satisying and enriching soundscape. (But perhaps he ought to be naked, too, muses my companion.)

The claims (on the accompanying info sheets) that the piece forms ‘an architecture of queer futurity’ amongst other musings may well be the case – but I feel everyone will forge their own responses to witnessing the piece, and having interpretations proposed seems to lessen it. Yes, it does prompt thoughts about ancestry and our relationship to nature. No, it doesn’t seem to speak to me about the afterlife. Weathervanes does, though, spark thoughts on the inter-connectedness of different forms of holistic movement practice. I find myself thinking about Etienne Decroux’s endeavour to establish corporeal mime as a costume-free practice, so that the focus is on the human form moving in the space. I think fondly of the meditative dance-theatre practices of Indonesian ‘free movement guru’ Prapto; and I think of the Butoh tradition, where the impulse for movement comes from within.

But ultimately, Weathervanes is meditative and beautiful, lovely images set in a resonant soundscape – and that’s quite enough for me.

Jian Yi: Weathervanes

Featured image (top of page): Eloina Haines: High Steaks

Eloina Haines: High Steaks was seen at Summerhall Anatomy Lecture Theatre, 9 August 2023.

Laura Murphy: A Spectacle of Herself was seen in Summerhall Main Hall, 9 August 2023.

Journey to the East Productions/ Jian Yi: Weathervanes was seen 10 August 2023 at Summerhall Basement Galleries.

All shows presented as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2023. www.edfringe.com 

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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing. www.dorothymaxprior.com