Monday, April 30, 2012

Food by Steve Rodgers

Emma Jackson as Nancy and Kate Box as Elma






Food by Steve Rodgers.  Directed by Kate Champion (Force Majeure) and Steve Rodgers at Belvoir Downstairs, Sydney, April 28 – May 20, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 29
Kate Champion - Co-director


Steve Rodgers - Writer and Co-director


Kate Box as Elma and Fayssal Bazzi as Hakan




Elma, of the sharp knives, looking into the eyes of Hakan, peripatetic Turk, as he looks into hers, making her decision to give him permission to kiss her, thinks aloud these words: Between the words!

This is the thematic climax of this new play, down-to-earth Australian in content, character and style.  It seems to me to settle into this century’s tradition set by Andrew Bovell and Christos Tsiolkas in its dialogue, yet takes off into the new form of dance theatre which Force Majeure has created.

The result is at times terrifying, funny and deeply saddening.  In this work, as in all good drama, it is what is happening, has happened and might happen, between the words, that catches our imagination and rings bells of truth about our lives.

Before going further, I should declare my potential for bias, since I taught Steve Rodgers drama in his senior secondary school years and trained him for the audition which took him to his tertiary training at University of Western Sydney, Nepean.

I also broke what I’m told is a cardinal rule for a critic, never to talk to the author or director after the show.  After 25 years I couldn’t miss the opportunity.  But I guarantee my reaction to the play, thoroughly confirmed by the excited response from the rest of the audience, was absolutely established in the last moment of silence before the lights came up for curtain call.

Because I have previously favourably reviewed two of Kate Champion’s works, The Age I’m In (2010) and Never Did Me Any Harm (Sydney Festival 2012) and seen the development from pure dance toward dance theatre, I wanted to ask Rodgers about the process he and Champion had gone through.  In this play I saw the choreographed movement working to reveal the feelings and meanings behind the everyday actions and words, integrating the text and plot in a new way.

Interestingly, Rodgers said that his original text was much longer, but as he and the actors worked with Champion, and she choreographed movement which ‘illustrated’ the text, it was often the case that the text should be cut and the movement stand in its own right.  In Never Did Me Any Harm which I saw only last January, words were used but seemed to me to be an expressive layer often exploding out from the feelings established in movement, which itself was choreographed closer to pure dance than in Food.  Now the words, movement and feelings come to us as a three-dimensional whole. 

It really is exciting to see new developments in theatrical form happening literally before my very eyes, only a metre or so from my front row seat.  It was also satisfying, talking about past times with Steve, to realise that he recognised the value of the educational drama processes of group improvisation, giving students the power to lead their own work, allowing creative writing to be assessed on the same terms as critical or analytic writing, and basing drama work on relationships in action rather than studying text isolated from action.

So what does happen in Food?  Elma (Kate Box) is in the kitchen of the small country town café she has set up with her sister Nancy (Emma Jackson).  The whole set is made up of pots and pans of every imaginable size.  Elma is already busy with the knives preparing for the men who will soon be there for breakfast, but Nancy is still in the shower, moving and singing to dance music.

At first she moves gently and in sync with the rhythm, but gradually becomes more and more agitated and out of time before at last coming out angrily responding to her sister’s increasingly autocratic demands.  Half-spoken words and looks – every turn of a face, twist of a wrist, sideways glance of an eye is choreographed, with the same kind of skill as in a traditional Indian dance – begin to reveal a dark family history for these two sisters.  It’s not my place to tell you of it here.  You need to experience the revelations for yourself.

The plot lightens when the sisters advertise for help, and Hakan (Fayssal Bazzi) steps off the bus. He’s a joker but essentially sincere, nothing like the Aussie boys and men who have wreaked havoc, physical and emotional, in the growing-up time of the two sisters.

He offers something that Nancy understands her elder sister needs.  He also is crucial in making the business grow, including indeed all of us in a kind of loaves-and-fishes audience participation.  I’ve seen real cooking on stage before, but this was a great degustation event not to be missed.

It was while celebrating the wonderful success that the scene is set for that kiss and more “between the words”.  Of course, Hakan has gone in the morning, knowing his role in Elma’s new understanding, and, I guess, recognising the conflict he would cause between the sisters if he stayed.  As they prepare the food for the coming day there is a brief mini-reprise of the tensions we saw at the beginning of the play, a sort of sadness at Hakan’s departure, then an understanding in their eye-contact, and a calm silence as they settle to the work and the lights dim to black.

The sensitivity and skills which each actor showed was quite extraordinary, supported in every detail by Anna Tregloan’s set and costume design, Martin Langthorne’s lighting and audio visual effects, and Ekrem Mülayim’s sound and music composition.  This production is literally and metaphorically a brilliant reflection of life in this country of contrasts of the best and the worst kind.  It is theatre you should not miss.
Kate Box

Emma Jackson
Fayssal Bazzi



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