Food with your play: Belvoir's Food

I’ve got a thing for theatre involving kitchens. Not necessarily sinks, just kitchens; little theatres of life, crucibles of thought and action, meeting places; familial communal spaces. I’d heard good things about Food, playing at Belvoir’s Downstairs theatre – very good things, in fact – and so this review comes from the closing weekend of its (already extended) season, something which only adds to the performance, I think: that it could be as fresh and as moving as it did at the end of its run means it’s a strong well-crafted piece of theatre. It’s about sisters Nancy and Elma who run a takeaway ‘restaurant’ on a highway, somewhere in Australia. Amongst the endless cycle of preparing food, the daily rut of serving the same customers the same thing day after day, comes a stranger, Hakan, a young traveler, who slowly – quickly – manages to bring the two sisters together, turning their world(s) upside-down.

The set, I think, goes some way in creating the magic of this piece, and it really is a terrific set. Designed by Anna Tregloan (who previously envisioned the brilliant mountain of clothes in Bell Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 2010), it consisted of a series of cooking pots and pans in various sizes, standing around the edges of the performance space, saucepans hanging on the rear wall, and a table that invariably was covered in flour and garlic and beans. Functional, cleverly manipulated – and interacted with – by Martin Langthorne’s lighting and video designs, it allowed the three actors to pull necessary props and costume changes from the pots clustered around the set and provided a sense of movement and an almost-tangible frustration, especially between the sisters.
Part of Food’s warmth came from the perfectly captured rhythms and cycles of life, no mean feat, and amongst many other elements – characterization, storytelling, the blurring of past and present, third-person narration, manipulation of time – showed the strengths and versatility in Steve Rodgers’ writing and co-directing.
One particular sequence, I think, encapsulates the entire production. Towards the beginning, following Elma’s kneading of the bread-dough, Nancy makes to sweep the table of the residual flour, but – testingly – flicks it away, barely taking her eyes from Elma, daring her, provoking her into (re)acting. Suddenly, as Elma darts to the table to stop Nancy, the two actors – Kate Box and Emma Jackson, respectively – slip into a heightened sense of movement and bodily awareness, a style that isn’t strictly normal and certainly isn’t dance, but sits somewhere between the two, neither one or the other. As each tries to stop the other, trying to overbalance them and push them away, never really succeeding, we get a glimpse into the tension and relationship between the two women. This comes to a head later on, as Elma and Nancy stand facing the audience, effectively retelling a pivotal story from their youth. As Elma tells the story, Nancy enacts her part of it, and the story becomes both a memory and a reality, relived in the moment by both women, a moment which screams of pain and hurt, but which is never pushed further than it needs to. Instead of being written and or played for shock value or sensationalism, Rodgers and co-director Kate Champion (Artistic Director of Force Majeure) exercise restraint and pull back, knowing exactly when the point has been made and when to close the moment, move on. Besides being an achingly moving moment in the play, it is also one of the most powerfully staged scenes I’ve seen in a while, charged with the emotional pain (and numbness) that the girls felt growing up.

About two thirds of the way through, as Elma, Nancy and Hakan make their little takeaway joint something more than a road-stop, it becomes a communal love-fest of food sharing and communion, as wine, soup and bread is broken and shared amongst the 90-strong patrons in the audience-restaurant. Not only heartwarming and joyous, it is certainly one of the boldest moments in my recent theatrical memory and it made the play even more personal than it already was; we, the audience, became participants in their story, became participants in their lives – we cared for them as more than merely characters.
At the end, as Elma and Hakan had their moment, Elma’s third-person narration – both an intimate part of the scene’s action and apart from it, a technique Rodgers used to tremendous and clever effect throughout – provided an anchor point for her character, a moment which solidified her as a person. “And then, she’s kissing him… It mightn’t be the best kiss in the world… but it’s not bad, you know?” The next morning, Nancy and Elma try to make sense of their new world, their new lives together – Elma who’d always stayed around, Nancy who‘d run off to the other side of the world with their mother’s boyfriend when she was seventeen – and as the lights dim in finality, we see two women – two sisters – who cannot exist without the presence, the shadow, of the other. It defines them, shapes them, binds them together, and gives their lives purpose.

“It’s not about playing with your food,” Liz said as we were walking back to Central, “but rather food with your play.”  It’s about the rhythms and the ruts of life, the brief rhapsodic passion of living in a moment, the way our lives are defined by those around us – our friends and our families – and ultimately, it’s a play about food. And the power it has to heal and bring us back together.

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