The Grand Opera House – Belfast
21st – 22nd October 2015
I went to The Kitchen – and it nourished me.
Widely seen as the highlight of this year’s Belfast Festival, The Kitchen was certainly among the most memorable pieces of theatre I have seen in the Grand Opera House. Written by Royston Abel, the play portrays the dynamics of a complex relationship by showing us a man and a woman making the sweet rice dish, payasam in enormous cooking pots. Fusing the sound of Mizhavu drummers with the very emotive movements of the couple as they prepare the dish, this play powerfully evoked human emotion and a strong sense of the Indian culture it has clearly grown from, but it did more than just that. I would say it transcended it.
Sitting in the darkened theatre, experiencing this play without words was a striking sensory experience. In the initial stages of the performance sugar was added to the pots and the scent of hot sugar permeated the space as we saw and smelled the cooking vapours. It was evocative of childhood, fairgrounds, high days and holidays. I found myself thinking about how cooking together is a fundamental part of human relationships regardless of where you come from. For me, the struggles of the couple on the stage then became very real, so close you might have touched them in your own family.
Visually stunning, the play showed us the cooking scene placed before a large structure, filled in tiers by the twelve drummers. At first it looked like they were the drummers within the drum, which was exciting in itself, but as the play progressed the use of individual lights shining at clever angles on the drummer’s hands evoked a sense of twelve individual flames moving at once.
The drumming involved a series of complex rhythms performed with varying dynamics and incredible energy. The group were so tight that if there were any flaws at all in the drumming, I genuinely could not detect them. The lights progressively ignited the structure on the stage in tiers, looking to me like heat spreading. They were also used to light individual drummers playing particular beats, like bursting flames. This culminated with stronger lighting from behind with a spreading of what looked like smoke. In the centre of this was the couple travailing with one another and with the contents of the pots. A visual crescendo to a precise and clearly demanding piece of theatre bringing together intricate skills in drumming, lighting, performance art and even cooking.
Of greatest interest for me was the fact that at the end of the performance, after we had seen Royston Abel on stage and been introduced to each performer by name, we left the auditorium to be greeted by the cast. They provided us with the dessert they had cooked on stage. This piece of theatre was cleverly staged, but there was nothing artificial about it. I stared out as an ‘other’, an audience member from a different culture, and ended up as a guest sharing some supper with the people who had just performed for me. It was food for thought for anyone who wants the theatre they create to hit at the idea that all human beings are basically the same. It reminded me that we go to all our painstaking efforts because nothing is as nourishing as the times when it all comes together to make powerful theatre. For me, this was one of those times.