This is a big year for The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein. After presenting How to be a Cupcake at the In Between Time Festival in Bristol, this newly commissioned piece had a two night run at the Barbican’s Silk Street Theatre, a good-sized venue for avant-garde “vagina-based work” as The Famous describes what she makes.
The opening image is of a blonde wig placed over a watermelon hanging from the ceiling. We watch this for a little longer than is comfortable before it falls and smashes on the floor. Lights change to reveal the Famous with her cast and collaborators in the wings. It’s part of her on-stage persona to treat them like shit though so you wouldn’t know how they are involved in the show’s development without reading the programme. They, in turn, spend most of the show looking bored and bereft of any agency, waiting for the diva’s self-indulgent shenanigans to be over and done with for another night.
As the Famous chops tomatoes and throws them into a cauldron, she instructs Lucy McCormick (from GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN) to rehearse her death scene. McCormick’s string bikini already sets a slightly exploitative tone to this but as she is instructed in a number of variations of the “death scene” by the Famous, the sexualisation of violence is driven to logical and unpalatable extremes (including, at one point, Rihanna being killed by Chris Brown while fellating him and “being in pain but liking it too because she went back for more”).
The issue of control is the most coherent through-line that I could extract from the show’s meaning and it’s certainly one that the Famous is acknowledging as being problematic. She issues instructions to the other women (and occasionally men) on stage and off who are fulfilling various functions in support of her. She is the thing. She is the almost exclusive object of our gaze and, even when she’s not, she remains in control. There are moments when she appears to lose control of herself and be experiencing distress: particularly when she is gyrating around naked on a swing to “Poison” by Nicole Scherzinger.
These are interesting moments and they hint at another side of the domineering diva persona. They are mere glimpses though and are soon washed away in the tide of aggressive sexuality that borrows heavily from pop music video imagery. This is pushed to the point of saturation so it becomes boring. An individual audience member’s threshold for this will vary, I’m sure, but in my own case I found myself spending a great deal of the performance feeling very bored indeed. In a sense, this is intended but I wondered what the journey I was being taken on was supposed to be: what’s the discover here beyond the fact that watching a naked woman gyrate on a swing while lip-synching a cheesy pop-song gets dull very quickly. Would my journey have been a different one if I weren’t male?
The kitsch ironic imagery (plenty of Disney references too) keeps the audience at a distance throughout with the experience only becoming more visceral when the actions become more extreme: such as inserting a knife handle into her vagina, thereby creating a kind of knife-penis which she uses to slash tomato-juice-filled balloons or removing a tiny Bambi toy from her vagina. These moments may make squirm a little at first and they are certainly likely to be what we remember about the show. However, while they feel ripe for academic analysis, as elements of performance we experience in the present, they are not as powerful as you might expect. One can’t be seen from further back than the second row and the other, again, becomes very boring after about a minute (in both cases there’s an emptiness beyond the concept).
Towards the end of the show, as the Famous is hanging upside down covered in tomato juice and eating a hamburger, she starts to list the various people involved in the show and how much they cost. She then moves on to props and other costs. Again, there’s a really interesting seed in that idea in relation to the overarching theme of control. Where does the money come from to make the show? Who gets paid what? Who is in control? Who owns the means of production? This is never really interrogated though and the monologue just descends into The Famous bitching about everyone and them accepting it. The gesture of the whole piece remains the same throughout and ultimately, while revealing everything, the Famous reveals nothing at all.