Catherine Hoffmann discusses her new show, Free Lunch with the StenchWench, which addresses austerity, shame and class: ‘A humiliating scrap with growing up skint in flat broke Britain’.
What can audiences expect to see in Free Lunch with the StenchWench?
Lifting the lid on a rat cooking in hot chocolate, breastfeeding it, sticking it in my grey austerity pants, cooking and burning food, talking and eating with my mouth full, scratching furiously and scrabbling about – these are all visceral, abject attempts to humiliate myself. I make myself blush, straining to make my face go red whilst trying to spit out words but can’t. In my performance, I show myself naked, expose family material, betray my mother – washing my dirty laundry in public. All the things I should feel ashamed of, but instead I illuminate these actions to relinquish them.
What inspired the show?
I started to making the show in 2015 after rats, fleas and pigeons descended upon me in my flat at different times throughout the year, bringing with them not only intense emotional reactions but also a gift of new material I couldn’t ignore. When Laura from Munich packed her bags in the middle of the night ravaged by fleas, I knew that the shame this brought up couldn’t be ignored. These were familiar feelings from the past – of not measuring up, being discovered and feeling dirty. I knew I had to go into this difficult terrain and bring these pests kicking and screaming into the light.
I wanted to make a piece where I would expose myself pushing towards the grotesque even, so that I could defiantly say – Here I am, after years of hiding. Time to come clean – I am the Stenchwench. It is OK to be without anything, to be poor, to say no I am not going to shrink anymore and neither should anyone else. Time to uncover. There are loads of us out there and by presenting the work I am hoping more voices can come out, there can be a rallying and a sharing of experiences. The device of shame in relation to class and economics in the UK is the most pervasive device to keep millions of people feeling small and powerless and it’s getting worse.
How have people responded to the show?
For the preview of the show at Toynbee studios in June 2016 I was interviewed by various people for radio and press and each time a conversation opened up about what they also hid from people – a single mother on benefits, a working class family with a heroin addicted brother who didn’t get invited to their wedding, or just weird clothes they were made to wear to school. Every occasion brought out a personal experience of shame.
The show is very direct… Punchy. Humour is very important and it swings from really ridiculous absurdity, then it will go into quite a sad bit. The piece has lots of lightness and fun, then it will suddenly go into a dark terrain. It changes dynamic. People never quite settle and I like that. Some people have cried at a couple of points, there is also a lot of laughing throughout and at times some who don’t know whether they should look or not!
Why is it important to speak about this?
We’re in this climate where the poor are getting even more demonised and sidelined. There’s a moral edge to it. But poverty is not a choice; it’s a result of the way we’ve structured society. I’ve made this piece to say: I’m not going to feel inferior and nobody else should feel inferior, just because they don’t have any money. We should all feel equal.
It’s always the case in moments of so-called austerity that the vulnerable get scape-goated. It’s either the disabled, immigrants or the poor. In times of harsh cuts and a divided society this is not just my story or my family’s but the experience of millions in Britain and it’s getting worse. So bring on the rats and the flea circus!
You can catch Free Lunch with the StenchWench at The Wardrobe on 6th June at 8pm. Book tickets here.