The quest for personal fulfilment both within and outside a relationship takes a wonderful twist in The Room Next Door – or That Vibrator Play, which opens at the Heath Ledger in October for Black Swan State Theatre Company.

The Room Next Door – or That Vibrator Play, by Sarah Ruhl, opened on Broadway eight years ago but has just found its way to Perth under the direction of Jeffrey Jay Fowler, who has wanted to present the period piece for a number of years, but the cost has been, until Clare Watson’s stewardship of Black Swan, a little off-putting.

With the green light, Jeffrey is looking forward to presenting a play he believes is not just about female pleasure but also female agency in the male-dominated system.

The play is set in the 1880s when, as Jeffrey describes it, the world was at the precipice of the electrical age.

 

Jeffrey Jay Fowler

For the first time the world had electric lights – and the vibrator, which was conceived as therapeutic rather than erotic, was one of the innovations.

“The characters are terrified of electricity. Back then technology was changing the world and people were frightened and this is consistent even now. We have and will continue to experience the exponential growth of technology and we feel we are always on the edge of the future and what that means for us,” he said.

Accompanying the staging is an exhibition in the theatre foyer of 19th century vibrators, which would not be out of place in a medieval torture chamber. Given how ubiquitous sex toys and vibrators are in the 21st century, they will take your breath away. These are heavy duty, utilitarian objects design to accomplish the job of “curing” women’s hysteria.

This correction of wrong emotions is very much at the heart of the play.

“Men succeeded in suppressing their emotions and the vibrator was an attempt to suppress women’s emotions. Women were told what was wrong with them and what to do about it. It was a man’s decision if they could have an orgasm. It’s telling that husbands bring their wives to doctor,” Jeffrey said.

 

German advertisement from the 1920s and 30s

“However, what emerges in the play is that women are not only seeking pleasure but meaningful communication and connection in their relationships. Things we all seek.”

While vibrators of the 21st century are more user-friendly and accessible (and come in a range of attractive colours), Jeffrey suggests that it doesn’t mean we have better relationships.

“That can’t be simulated or stimulated,” he said.

Perth actress and WAAPA graduate Elizabeth Blackmore returns from Los Angeles where she has been making television such as The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural. Her husband Tom Stokes is also in the cast as is another husband-wife acting duo Rebecca Davis and Stuart Halusz.

“I have two couples in the cast but they are not playing each other’s spouse in the play. There’s a lot of intimacy between performers, so it’s a nice safe environment but I didn’t want to direct couples playing a couple. This way it’s a learning process for everyone,” Jeffrey said.

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