Festival Diary #5: Sunday Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, The final image is of her standing, human and alone, on the bare stage.
Food Court, devised by the company, directed and designed by Bruce Gladwin. Lighting design by Andrew Livingston (bluebottle). Performed by Mark Deans, Rita Halabarec, Nicki Holland, Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price. Music by The Necks, Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton. Back to Back Theatre @ the Merlyn Theatre (closed). 29-31 January 29-31, 2009, Geelong Performing Arts Centre: Bookings 03 5225 1200
Every now and then a show comes along and reminds you that theatre is a burning glass, that it can be an art that focuses experience into an emotional thermic lance which sears through the intellect into the tissue of deep feeling, right where it hurts. Such theatre reminds you that, as Artaud said in his final madness, being alive is difficult; it reminds you that existence is cruel and painful, and - crucially - that the only way we can experience beauty is if we also open ourselves to pain and sorrow.
It's a rare experience which only occurs when all the different elements of a production click mercilessly into focus, when they expose the simplicity, even the naivety, of performance and so open up the full possibilities of its devastating power. Food Court is this kind of show.
The last time I emerged so shattered from a work of theatre was in 2005, at another festival show: Ariane Mnouchkine's Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées). After that one, I had to hide behind some handy rubbish bins at the Exhibition Building until I was able to piece myself together. These responses emerge, after all, from places that one doesn't necessarily want others to see. The land of tears, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once remarked, is so mysterious.
Food Court is very unexpected, a quantum leap from Back to Back's hit small metal objects, which premiered at the 2005 Melbourne Festival and catapulted this company of disabled actors into the international theatre scene. small metal objects was exciting theatre, but Food Court is something else. It's this company's first work in a theatre, rather than in a public space, and demonstrates how well Bruce Gladwin and his company understand the dynamics of space and audience: it's visually and technically astonishing. But that's not what breaks your heart.
It is essentially a very simple enactment of a mundane but brutal story of bullying, set in a suburban shopping centre. What is masterly is how it communicates the experience of human disempowerment and humiliation. It's one of the most pitilessly honest pieces of theatre I've seen, driving unwaveringly into the core of the experience it narrates.
It is, in many ways, very cruel. But cruelty alone would not be enough: if we were not acutely aware of the humanity that is damaged, of the ambiguities that twist into human brutality, it would be simply an exercise in sadism. And this show is much more than that: it is also resistance, a cry to what is common between us, to the naked and hurt lives within us all.
It opens in complete darkness and silence. Then we see a torch, lighting the musicians to their pit in front of the stage. More silence. And then the quiet thrum of a bass guitar, slow percussion, a piano, the minimal beginning of a score that deepens and expands with the show, a relentless emotional pulse driving the action.
The lights come up, revealing a forestage backed by a black curtain. A man comes out through the curtain onto the stage, carrying a chair, and places it carefully on its mark. He retreats and brings out another. Other performers emerge, including two women (Rita Halabarec and Nicki Holland) dressed in tight, bright yellow leotards. They are grotesquely fat, but come on like movie stars, posing for the audience.
This is the first moment of discomfort. People laugh, but uneasily. Is it wrong to laugh? The performers are mugging for our laughter, but is it right? There follows a bit of comic stage business involving the male performers scurrying after the women with a boom mic to amplify their lines, which introduces one of the powerful conventions of this show: spoken lines are also projected onto the curtain. Then another woman (Sarah Mainwaring) comes on stage. She curls in a chair, her head bowed. The other women begin to abuse her for being fat. (She isn't fat). She makes no response; she sits on the chair, hunched against the tirade, her hands and head shaking with involuntary tremors. They abuse her again, and it begins to get seriously unpleasant.
The performers leave the stage and the curtains lift, revealing a scrim behind which is a blue light, disconcertingly without perspective. We have left the food court, left the shopping centre: we are now in the "forest". The three women are silhoettes behind the scrim. The bullying gets more intense: the two women order Mainwaring to take her clothes. Slowly, she does. Then, in a moment which made my entire body cold with horror, they tell her to take off her bra. She does. Her knickers. She does. And then, as she stands naked, in a dim pool of light, they tell her to dance. She does, and as she does so people come onto the stage and look at her, one after another, more and more; they stare at her humiliation as she dances, and then they lift their hands and point.
One of the disturbing aspects of this scene is that Mainwaring's dance is beautiful; vulnerable and naked and humiliated, yet oddly free. It scrapes horribly against the visceral mockery and contempt.
After this sequence, the blueish, shifting no-place behind the scrim begins to transform into a forest, with black trees that shift in and out of focus, slowly and dizzyingly, as in a dream. Most of the silent witnesses leave. The two women beat and kick Mainwaring, who curls naked on the ground, lying in a dimly lit space in a grove of nightmarish trees. The other women back away, perhaps afraid of what they have done, and a man comes up to Mainwaring and speaks to her. It's a disturbing conversation, thick with the threat of rape, but deeply ambiguous because the man is also speaking his own damage and longing. And then, without touching her, he leaves.
Mainwaring rises and puts on her clothes. Then she stands and passionately quotes Caliban's speech from The Tempest, the letters scrambling onto the scrim as she struggles to articulate them. She said these words with such longing, such fierce pride, such humility, that something within me broke:
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
In the long silence that followed, before the lights came up and the audience broke into a storm of applause, I think everyone there was holding their breath. "Stunned" is a word that is easily reached for, but in this case, I think it a precise description.
For all its visual splendour and astounding technical accomplishment, Food Court is theatre stripped back to its essentials. The one weakness of small metal objects was its devised script: here the text, under the eye of script consultant Melissa Reeves, is spare and telling, not one syllable out of place. Part of Food Court's power derives from the knowledge that the experience enacted here is one familiar, in one form or another, to its performers; but this potentially sentimentalising knowledge is undermined by the hard recognition that victimhood and brutality are common to every human being. It's one of the most unsparing theatrical explorations I've seen of this universal and tragic understanding, forged from the most ordinary, most mundane of stories.
If I could think of more superlatives, I'd list them. Food Court is the revelation of my festival so far.
Another version of this review appears in Friday's Australian.
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
The final image is of her standing, human and alone, on the bare stage.