Food: Item Not as Described

Trigger warning: discussion of sexual violence. (Also, relevant to that trigger warning: spoiler warning.)

La Boite describes Food as a “feast for the senses with an erotic mix of words and movement.” Critics call Steve Rodgers’ new play (directed by Rodgers and Kate Champion) sensual, a hilarious rom-com, soul food — “It will make you happy” (Stage Milk). Reading these reviews, I began to wonder if I’d seen a different play.

In Food, two sisters run a backwater takeaway joint inherited from their mother. Elma (Kate Box), the responsible elder sibling, is resigned to the daily heating up of Chiko Rolls until laidback Nancy (Emma Jackson) convinces her to transform the family shop into a restaurant. They hire charming Turkish traveller, Hakan (Fayssal Bazzi), to help out. From here, it’s well-trodden territory: the restaurant becomes a roaring success and Hakan spices up their lives as well as their cooking.

Anna Tregloan’s design is fantastic; the set features one central table against a backdrop of pots and pans. Clever projections transform these into glowing moons that frame home movies — the sisters’ childhood memories.

All action — highs and lows — takes place in this kitchen, and most of it whilst chopping vegetables. Needless to say, food is very important to Food. But it’s a stilted kind of food preparation, always pausing for conversation. I find myself wondering how the Chiko Rolls ever make it to the fryer. It makes me nervous. Handing out soup and wine to the audience is a nice touch, but being fed during shows is becoming more commonplace in the trend towards immersive theatre, and that puts the onus on each meal to do more. Mugs of minestrone abandoned after the show suggest that this scene is more of a distraction than a treat.

Box and Jackson

For Food, Rodgers collaborates with dance theatre company Force Majeure — something I was surprised to be reminded of after the show. The emphasis on movement is subtle or, at least, less rhythmic than it is frenetic.

Nothing lacks in the casting. Box, in particular, gives a genuine performance as the stoic Elma. It is uplifting to watch Elma realise her potential, and value, as a restaurateur. Jackson plays an intriguing Nancy, while Bazzi as Hakan makes an interesting transformation from happy-go-lucky pixie dream boy to entitled Casanova.

The trouble is that Food isn’t sure what kind of play it wants to be. It opens with Nancy dancing; increasingly, her movements become distressed, controlled — she is raped by an invisible presence. Cut scene, and we meet Elma and Nancy in the kitchen — where most of the play takes place. The sisters bypass the fourth wall now and then to narrate recollections in, variously, in the first and third person. Thus we flit back and forth between horrifying memoir (including several other instances of sexual assault) and cheery kitchen repartee.

When Hakan enters, pulling focus with a dramatic monologue and slideshow of his former lovers, the tone changes again — so much so that this scene is almost a play within the play. In some ways, this makes sense (he is the catalyst that’s meant to change the sisters’ world) but no transition is smooth. Likewise, while the women’s third-person monologues dissociate them from their pasts, they also promote Food’s overarching stylistic inconsistency.

It’s little wonder Elma and Nancy would want to distance themselves from the childhood memories they recount to us (in vivid detail), which include an instance of gang rape. But these sexual assaults, a source of tension between the older and younger sister, are never truly addressed — they serve to explain Nancy’s promiscuousness and sudden disappearance years before, and likewise to explain (in part, at least), Elma’s struggle with eating disorders. They’re scenes played to disturb the audience and garner sympathy, but these revelations don’t change the story or heal the characters.

The character of Hakan fulfils the cliché of the exotic traveller, just passing through, bringing with him a ray of sunshine. But this kitchen hand claims he can’t help but ogle a beautiful woman. (Elma points out he looks at Nancy “like she’s a steak.”) In the workplace, he sneaks up behind Nancy to embrace her. One failed seduction later, and he sets about taming the shrew instead.

So where is the burning sense of the erotic in Food that everyone’s talking about? It can’t be the slow top-and-tailing of beans, nor the minestrone, nor the Chiko Rolls. It’s certainly not the gang rape of a teenager by her peers while her sister waits outside. So it must be the creeping Casanova, overwhelmed by passion, who just can’t help himself. Given the women’s backstory, that this predatory sexual entitlement goes unchecked is problematic — unnerving, rather than erotic.

Rodgers’ script is thoroughly Australian in its sense of humour, yes. Moments of wit and playfulness shine through family drama and heartbreaking disclosures. But is it actually a comedy? I’d wager it belongs firmly on the drama shelf, far away from foodie feel-goods and tragi-comic comedies. But ultimately, it’s a shallow drama — with no one but the restaurant really changed by the end. Uplifting? I’m confused.

As a final note, as you enter the Roundhouse there’s a sign warning that the play contains course language, adult themes and simulated sexual intercourse. That’s a very different matter from themes of sexual violence, mentioned nowhere on that sign or on the website blurb — but appearing repeatedly in the play. I know it’s not just me who takes these themes into account when choosing what to see. On their booking page, La Boite takes the time to advise that “not all audience members will receive food.” Yet a warning regarding explicit sexual violence is overlooked.

Rodgers relies on “women’s issues” like sexual violence, eating disorders and fraught mother-daughter relationships to introduce pathos to a play that never intends to develop its three leads, who perform admirably in the face of a shallow script.

“It’s really about wanting,” says Rodgers in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “Wanting intimacy with people, wanting the love and sex that feeds you and that can complete you, settle you.” Food tries to explore the desire for intimacy in the face of sexual trauma, but to do so Rodgers and Champion needed to handle Nancy and Elma’s childhoods with the depth, subtlety and sensitivity they deserved. That way, their moments of joy would have been all the more uplifting for the contrast. Alas, I certainly found Food wanting.

Food runs at La Boite until 27 April 2013.

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