Notorious at the Barbican
Is there any stronger force than that which prevents us from talking in lifts? Literally no. You might be midway telling me that your boyfriend has been sticking it in Pringles tubes while you’re asleep but the minute we step into that lift you better believe my face will be an unreadable fortress. No one’s ever told anyone about lift etiquette, you just know instinctively. It’s like breathing, or queuing.
I step into a lift on Tuesday night with three other women, each of us alone, after watching Notorious in The Pit at the Barbican. We all face inwards, making a circle, and lock eyes. ‘I have a headache,’ I say in a small voice, testing the waters. ‘It’s the stress,’ one of the women responds loudly, before another puts her hand to her forehead to check her own temperature. ‘I literally don’t know what to say,’ says the fourth member of our little gang, offering me her water bottle. We reach ground level and file out. I pass the water bottle back and the woman grabs hold of my hand for a second. ‘I honestly don’t know what just happened,’ she says, and we all go our separate ways.
Never has there been a more British response to a night of broken taboos. The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein had just spent 90 minutes on stage systematically breaking down conventions of womanhood, of respectability politics, of theatre itself, and we responded by breaking lift etiquette. I promise I’m not being glib when I felt something over those 30 seconds in that metal box as the four of us turned to one another for a little comfort.
Notorious is a show that questions the our need to redeem women, from Eve, to Medusa, to Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus. To say that it’s challenging is a frankly deranged understatement. It made me squirm in a thousand different ways. When I spoke to Holstein a couple of weeks ago, and asked her the question ‘What would you say to someone who found your show uncomfortable?’ I was absolutely not referring to myself. I imagined that ‘someone’ to be a person who was squeamish about the female body naked on stage, and who struggled to fathom the nuances of radical feminist theatre. Basically, I was imagining that person as a man.
But - who knew?! - it was me. I was uncomfortable watching The Famous pull a gummy snake out of her own vagina (I crossed my legs, cringing), I was uncomfortable watching her self-flagellate with a dead octopus (bits of it started breaking off and it smelled!), and I was uncomfortable watching her urinate on a pile of popping candy which she then lay in (I mean…I guess that one’s kind of self-explanatory?). But all that was nothing in comparison to how uncomfortable I felt about how uncomfortable I felt.
I’d expected to watch a show that gave me some answers about the well-worn Madonna-whore trope, about my conflicted feelings about Miley Cyrus, some nice Eve-and-the-apple symbolism. Sorry to be gross but I’d basically expected to feel clever, like when you read David Foster-Wallace and understand a reference, or when you listen to a podcast that gives you some great soundbites you can regurgitate at drinks. Instead, literally the opposite happened. I felt like I wasn’t getting it.
When the audience laughed, The Famous chastised us. When we didn’t laugh, she chastised us some more. She told us she loves us, then that she hates us. She invited us in, and then made us feel complicit in objectifying her. She was exhausted, she got out of breath, she had to take sips of water, but she carried on, and on, and on, because that’s what we’d paid to see her do. Whether scripted or not, when she seemed to run out of things to say, she hurried herself on because we were waiting for her to do something - something weird, something kooky, something ‘humiliating’. The Famous might have been naked, but we were the ones exposed.
Why I was there? Was I really waiting for her to do something that would cause me to pity her, which would in turn me feel good about myself simply by virtue of the fact that at least I’m not doing that. Is that how I feel about Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift? Am I glad I haven’t fallen like we’re told they have? I really didn’t think so, but The Famous sowed the seed of doubt. I was expecting her to confirm what I think about shaming culture, about the male gaze, about womanhood, but instead she asked questions of us, of me.
In our interview, Holstein’s response to my question about ‘someone’ who felt discomfort was actually very generous (she did say that her real-life persona was kinder than her persona as The Famous…). She told me that ‘[discomfort] is a really important feeling, and I really support your feeling that way. I hope you spend time exploring that.’
I plan to.