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.

Holding the Man

La Boite, February 26

I first saw Tommy Murphy’s adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s memoirs half a decade ago. It was a devastating experience then, at Brisbane Powerhouse in 2008. Thus it is that I have no excuse for my rookie mistake at La Boite: I have forgotten tissues. David Berthold returns to direct the story of Conigrave, a Melbourne actor and playwright born in 1959 whose high school love affair would last a lifetime — albeit a tragically short one.

There are two distinct halves to Holding the Man: the youthful comedy of act one, and then the slower march of act two. To say it’s a play about AIDS would be to sell Conigrave’s work and life short; rather, it’s about life: growing up gay in Australia in the 1970s and 80s, being in love, making mistakes, and negotiating family, politics and health.

The frank dialogue sets the pace for act one. Murphy’s script is refreshingly open about sex — enough to cause a few jaw-drops in the audience. We share the stalls with a class of Year 11 drama students in uniform — from my personal experience at a religious high school, this must sure beat any sex education they’ve had to date.

Alec Snow is the right man for the job as Tim; we are immediately on his side as he casually woos the gentle athlete, John Caleo (Jerome Meyer). Murphy has translated their voices authentically to the stage; their sincerity is the quality the play pivots around.

Holding Man

As we dash through the decades, we meet a kaleidoscope of queer archetypes played by a strong supporting cast: Eugene Gilfedder, Helen Howard, Jai Higgs and Lauren Jackson. The cast are made vulnerable by on-set costume changes in amongst mirrors bedecked with stage lights. It’s a good choice — in Holding the Man, everything is exposed.

Throughout this, Tim and John’s relationship develops and wavers. Then the 1980s bring their horrific revelations. Act two slows its pace: while the epidemic rages, each tragedy is deeply personal. The strongest scenes play out as fevered amalgams of drama workshops and medical scenarios — these whirlwinds make our hearts thump with the protagonist’s confusion and fear.

At times, the ensemble seems a little uncomfortable with the staging. But then, Holding the Man isn’t really a play in the round, and this is the Roundhouse Theatre. Still, the discrete elements of Brian Thomson’s design are striking and effective, and Micka Agosta’s uncanny puppetry makes the play’s final scenes resonate. If 2008 is anything to go by, those chills may resonate for years.

It’s easy to look back on the 70s and 80s and think about how much Australia has changed for queer people, their friends and families. But the poster for Holding the Man (pictured) has Snow and Meyer in a pose evocative of Queensland Association for Healthy Communities’ now-famous “Rip & Roll” campaign of 2011. Last year Queensland Health defunded QAHC, which provided HIV prevention services to local LGBTIQ communities. It’s a pertinent time to revisit Conigrave’s story, and to ensure that it does resonate.

Holding the Man runs at La Boite until March 16.

No Mere Freak Show

Review: Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness

In a word, Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness is sumptuous. Renée Mulder’s set design and Damien Cooper’s exquisite lighting transform La Boite into a worn, warm big top. Finally, this theatre space—often a difficult one to negotiate—puts its best foot forward, rivalling the Spiegeltent for ambience with a raised, tilted platform that evokes a spider web of carnival memories.

Anthony Neilson’s script is rich pickings: witty, ridiculous, poignant, irreverent, poetic and absolutely spellbinding. “In a world where death is at our shoulder every hour,” says Gant “even the smallest act of creativity is a marvellous, courageous thing.” The show is a paean to imagination. Emphasising that “the truth of life lies least of all in the facts,” the over-arching story is revealed through a series of plays-within-the-play (not entirely unlike the layers of Gilliam’s Imaginarium).

 

Australian designers Romance Was Born have created wonderful costumes for a show that draws so much inspiration from the days of travelling carnivals. Every inch of the cast seems to sparkle, though I am glad Edward Gant (self-professed “prodigy, soldier, traveller, poet but always and ever a showman”) has such a glorious, glittering cape to distract from a fake potbelly that never quite looks right. The cast of four play numerous roles, from their carnival selves to teddy bears who just want some imaginary tea, whilst clever staging enables a chorus of pimples, bursting with “cheese,” to dance for us. Delicious.

I’ll admit that Paul Bishop is not the kind of Gant I expected, but his voice is perfect and he wears that moustache with finesse. Occasionally, perhaps uncomfortable in the role, he overplays Gant by mere inches and loses the confidence he needs to be ringleader. Bryan Probets* slips most effortlessly into his role as Jack Dearlove (and others), and seems the most versatile and genuine of the cast. Emily Tomlins (recently seen in Julius Caesar) is less convincing—she never quite disappears into her characters—while La Boite newcomer Lindsay Farris is competent, but like Tomlins never quite melds into the setting, unable to lose the Athletic Young Australian Bloke vibe.

Sarah Goodes clearly has a steady hand as director, and Steve Toulmin’s music delivers. With so much working in the play’s favour, the stage certainly was set for a mind-blowing performance. But, as I watched, I couldn’t help but be conscious of the fact that the cast were Actors (with a capital A) only pretending to be carnies. Possibly I go to more circus than is healthy. None the less, this La Boite/Sydney Theatre Company co-production delights, disgusts, enchants and surprises with what must be called amazing feats of theatre.

 

*I read, in his bio, that Bryan Probets was in the great Aussie vampire flick, Daybreakers. I was certain I remembered him as a vampire scientist working for the baddies. Turns out he was a subsider (a very uncivilised vampire indeed) in full make-up, so there’s no way that I actually remember his face. Memory is so fallible…but “the truth of life lies least of all in the facts,” right? Right?

Edward Gant plays until June 12 at La Boite. You can read my interview with composer and sound designer Steve Toulmin at Rave Magazine. What did you think of the show? Tell me in the comments section below.

Photos by Al Caeiro for La Boite.

Boy Girl Wall Accordion

It has been the kind of month that invites adventure in and won’t let it leave till it’s properly sloshed—by which stage it’s difficult to ever get rid of. I’ve been to see some outrageously good shows, rambled around cemeteries, written lots, and re-manifested myself as the love child (imagine that) of Tank Girl and Delirium. Hullo, April—where did March go?! This is where:

Jason Webley @ The Zoo

Early last week, Jason Webley arrived in Queensland to finish the Down Under leg of 2011’s epic world tour. Finally seeing him perform, after four and a half years of waiting, was a singular joy. Webley’s Brisbane show at The Zoo on March 23 attracted around 200 punters, all very ready to stomp and sing and become his makeshift orchestra.

When he’s on stage, the slogan on promo posters, “post-apocalyptic fun,” makes perfect sense. I can imagine Webley—in his beloved, battered dancing hat—as the kind of musician that would get us through the apocalypse and still have us dancing even after the sky had long since crashed down.

Those who came along to Webley’s farewell house party (/hosts’ housewarming) were in for an extra treat. The night turned into one long, glorious jam session. (I even got out my trumpet! And toyed with an unsuspecting ukelele!) You’ll find a garage-full of people playing Eleven Saints floating around on YouTube, no doubt.

Jason Webley @ The Zoo—photo by Zen’s dodgy phone

Poetry & Graveyards

Earlier in the week, I was very pleased to be able to drag Mr Webley and a RagTag group of Brisbanites around my favourite of haunts, Toowong Cemetery—an adventure in itself. After several months of guilty neglect, I’ve been visiting the graveyard much more often. (I don’t know how I manage to forget the necropolis down the road–inside the gates it is always cooler and quieter than it could ever get in our sweltering house.)

More gravewalks means more grave poems—a good thing, since last year’s ramblings are beginning to see the light. Issue 35 of Cordite Poetry Review, Oz-Ko (Envoy) is online as of today, and I’m super excited to say that there you’ll find Warning. Consider it the introduction to that forthcoming cemetery collection I so often talk about (see! bits of it exist!).

And in extra shiny, super-duper rad breaking news, our own Jeremy Thompson is one of three poets commended by judge Peter Minter in 2010’s Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize, rising above over 1000 entries into the realm of Awesome. Whee!

boy girl wall @ La Boite

Bear with me, because my segues for this blog are about to get worse. In fact, non-existent. Run with it. You might remember me raving away last year about a wonderful little Brisbane show called boy girl wall. Well, it’s back on this year at La Boite, and last night’s opening performance proved its just as marvellous as we thought the first time around. Maybe a bit more marvellous.

Lucas Stibbard in boy girl wall—photo by Al Caeiro

In 2010, The Escapists’ one-man show, performed by Lucas Stibbard—with live music from Neridah Waters—relied on the walls of the Sue Benner Theatre at Metro Arts (the set was literally drawn on with chalk), so I was interested to see how they’d handle La Boite’s in-the-round set-up. Fortunately, The Escapists have made something gorgeous out of a potential problem: a chalk-board green stage hits the horizon line and becomes a collage of blackboards rising into the rafters. In the vast La Boite space, Keith Clark’s lighting really helps to hold everything together (I only wish he could use his lighting powers to rig up a more powerful OHT).

Beyond the venue, not too much has changed, and it was lovely to visit the 20-something characters again (especially dear Power Box and the lovely, but somewhat gothic library assistant). The script is clever, life-affirming, and above all, maddeningly funny. Seeing boy girl wall again, the influence of Under Milk Wood (which Stibbard and I chatted about recently in Rave Magazine) becomes delightfully clear. If you enjoy being happy, you should grab tickets before the rest of the season sells out.