Review: Notorious, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Notorious, performed as part of the Fierce Festival, is a piece described as ‘live art, theatre, dance and fine art’. The Festival, hosted at various venues around Birmingham, is here to celebrate a range of various styles of live art and to challenge performative norms. Commissioned by the Festival and the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Notorious is blessed with having an extremely generous venue space that a lot of performers would beg to be able to perform in- which is an advantage of expanding attention to performances in regional theatres.

Well, where do I start? I have to begin by saying that I disagree with the description. It’s accurate in the fact that it is live performance, but ‘art’ is very subjective.

Did I completely understand and resonate with the piece? Absolutely not. It very much tested my patience and made me feel deep anger and frustration throughout, but in a way I have to commend Lauren Barri Holstein for her unique attempt at boundary breaking and creating a lasting impression.

Holstein’s intentions are clearly to break through barriers with some kind of feminist mallet, so that the audience see all that she can offer. Oh, I mean it, we see it all, with the experience with the performance  hitting new heights throughout each section. We begin (15 minutes late-was this intentional?) with Holstein and her two other performers that Holstein uses more-so mostly as  human props dangling from the ceiling, suspended as though abstract abnormal beasts as though some kind of satanic ritual is about to begin. It wasn’t for about 5 minutes until anyone spoke at all, and the pace seemed to drag largely. Little did I know in my unspoiled naivety that this was the pace to be set throughout to maximise discomfort.

Without spoiling the all of the surprises, Holstein continues with section after section of being as far fetched as possible. We see her pull stunts like pulling things out of her vagina and eat them, put tubes of goo and also coins in there and watch them spill on the floor whilst being suspended by wires, as well as rip up an octopus and slap the floor and their naked bodies with it. I understand and agree with creating art that shocks and helps the audience ask questions, but I only feel as though Holstein was trying to show her vast repertoire and range of being disgusting and I failed to understand a lot of her references. The performance was deconstructed as she addressed us and commented on everything that was going on in a very casual way, which is fine if it is supported by a purpose, which I struggled to find with most of the activities that occurred. .

I was very intrigued by a what-seemed redeeming moment where Holstein sat on a chair and spoke in what bounced between a casual and overly-sweet-baby American voice, which I figured was a projection of what the a white-male dominated public would view of her as a sexualised woman, as well as commenting on fame culture. My glimmer of hope was destroyed violently when Holstein said that she had no idea why she had been given hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of budget, which infuriated me as I empathise with the performers who could have been granted with such an opportunity. She also made reference to how it wasn’t a feminist empowerment piece as she was doing all the work anyway. Charming. This was not long before she strapped herself back into the harness, asked her assistants to hold her legs to either side whilst she urinated onto the floor onto a pile of popping candy.

My emotions were at boiling point when Holstein decided to lay in said urine-covered-popping candy and all  of them stare at the audience as Britney’s ‘Work Bitch’ plays in the background. After starting so late and overrunning, and filling the performance time with something that, heaven forbid, everyone could technically do if under enough sedation, I was angered by the sheer obnoxiousness of it all. I left feeling angry, uncomfortable and disgusted, as I assume others did as they left the auditorium early. If this was the intention of the performance, she certainly succeeded.

Perhaps others will be able to enjoy the experience more than myself. I understand abstract performances from people like Marina Abramovic and the necessity of challenging the way we view performance art as well as feminism, and to a degree I understand Holstein’s methods of trying to do this as she is respected within her field. But I’m certainly confident that Holstein will carry on creating works that shock the world in her own strong and unique way.

Notorious played Birmingham Repertory Theatre until 22nd October.

Steph J. Watkins

Steph J. Watkins

Steph is an actress and a keen theatre goer, foodie and wine drinker. She has a degree in Musical Theatre and also studied Acting for Stage and Screen at The American Musical Theatre Academy. She loves nothing more than sitting down with a good play and a glass of Rioja, if she's not already at the theatre, that is!