Soup for the Imagination [by James Wenley]
Now in its second year, The Feast has the potential to be one of the most important avenues for development of new work. Created through Red Leap Theatre’s incubator program, the company’s physical theatre devising process is used as a springboard for the development of new work from its participants. The Feast marks the point the work is produced for a paid audience, and includes three works for one bargain ticket: The Perfect Original developed by Jess Holly Bates, Mr Nancy by Ella Beecroft, and Sinoatrial by Robert Mignault. While last year’s gastronomic metaphor included themed cupcakes to represent each show, and a special POP dining night, this year the artists are serving soup during the interval of each show to get the conversational juices flowing about the work.
As we enter The Basement doors for The Perfect Original, we’re offered a very Pakeha mihi as we’re invited to hongi each of the performers – Romy Hooper, Leon Wadham, Victoria Abbott, and Jess Holly Bates – something I don’t ever recall being invited to do by Maori companies. After I press my nose against Hooper’s, she laughs about the “awkward cultural moment”. The cast line up to present their mihimihi, but they interrupt and talk over each other, not giving the ritual the accepted reverence. Bates says she is a 4th generation New Zealander. They talk about place and where they come from, and where they’re travelled. Hooper says she “can get pretty territorial”, and claims Mt Eden as her mountain for the view.
The Perfect Original continues Jess Holly Bate’s exploration of her personal cultural identity from her solo spoken-word show Real Fake White Dirt, and a sense of Pakeha culture as both indigenous and foreign, though the themes here are not as finely worked through as they are in that piece. Following introductions, the cast pair off: Bates and Wadham to enact a naturalistic (at first) scenario about a kiwi who has recently returned from overseas travel, and Hooper and Abbott to perform commedia dell’arte lazzi type scenarios, wearing the masks of a cat and a possum. It’s a wonderfully inventive juxtaposition.
Jess has returned from Istanbul, but feels like she needs to get more in touch with her own indigenous culture, worrying that she needs to finish learning Te Reo first before she can move onto Spanish. Leon Wadham’s character is a new flatmate, who is constructed as a provocateur. While there’s a later twist to his character which provides some clarity, his purpose for much of work, dramatic and symbolic, is ill-defined, not helped by Wadham’s tendency to speak his dialogue at rapid pace, and I keep mishearing his lines.
The parallel storyline with the cat and the possum are more successful, playing with the ideas of the introduced species. Director Robin Kerr and Bates construct some quite complex imagery with the comedic pair. Dressed in farm gear, but wearing the animal masks, they shoot a kereru and play piñata with the native bird. My ears latch onto the lyrics of the soothing old-style song accompanying the action, about a “fascinating Maori girl” who makes her “poi poi’s twirl”. One of the animals then takes a selfie. Dark comedy turns to a distinctly uncomfortable feeling.
At the end the performers re-line up to continue talking about themselves. Hooper says that she feels “at home … I don’t have an identity crisis”. With the cultural cringe vanquished, this perhaps is the new myth. The Perfect Original digs under the skin to uncover deeply buried Pakeha guilt; there’s a sense of belonging, but also a sense that perhaps there shouldn’t be. There’s an anxiety revealed too about how to access indigeneity as Kiwis without being condescending, token, or worse.
Though dealing with Gods, Mr Nancy feels smaller in purpose coming after The Perfect Original, and acts as a less intellectual diversion. Performed by Felix Beecroft, Tawanda Mangimo and Fathe Tesfamarian, the Viking myth of trickster God Loki, and West African God Anansi are amusingly combined, imagining them both in an eternal prison, trapped in a giant snake at the bottom of the ocean. In the belly of the snake the Gods occupy themselves with juvenile pranking of one another, but this is disrupted when a human, searching for a song that has never been heard before, is swallowed by the snake.
The three men tell their story with a lively flurry of energy, switching between narrators and characters, and they play with the possibilities of how their free bodies in space can tell the story, with the creative limitation of allowing themselves to use a large spotlight on the floor as their playing area. There’s an amusing scenario where the Gods expect the human to pray to them, but he surprises with his human tech. Directors Ella Beecroft and Lutz Ham need to bring more clarity to the performer’s mimes, which sometimes lack definition, and the story itself needs clarifying, particularly the human’s need to find his song.
One of the delights of The Feast is walking into the theatre to see how each show will use the space. In The Perfect Original, designer Chye-Ling Huang has a build-up of dried native plants strewn on one side of the stage. In Mr Nancy all this is cleared away for an empty stage. In Sinoatrial, white canvas has been erected across the width of the stage, floor to ceiling and on the floor in front of the seating block. Everyone is careful not to step on it as we find our seats, but after the canvas is drawn on and cut by performers Robert Mignault, Claire Van Beek and Will Robertson throughout the show, we don’t show the same care at the end as we exit.
Mignault greets us with a twinkle in his eye and asks if we are up for an experiment in synchronicity. We’re instructed to clap randomly, and then as he turns to face us we must start clapping in unison. We get it on the second go. Mignault uses this to tell us about how he’s been thinking about the synchronicity of ants, bees, and fish. The performance is best described as a theatrical lecture, Mignault instilling a sense of wonder about how the world works. The ants operate with “no manager at all”. Nature again and again provides examples where “countless activities of individuals” contribute to intelligent group action, but never grasp the “global order”. Mignault’s assistants project scientific graphs and diagrams onto the screen behind him as he talks. With these examples established, Mignault introduces his central thesis: in the heart is a cluster of cells called the Sinoatrial node that operates in this manner and determine if we live or die. You’re “not even beating your own hearts”, he tells us. Director Holly Chappell makes full use of the canvas, and simple props such as red balloons are used inventive ways. Sinoatrial is a fascinating and thoughtful mind exercise that leaves you feeling a bit smarter as you exit the stage doors for the final time.
The publicity material describes the entire night as a “banquet”, but I do not think these shows are at the level of a feast yet. The served soup, as it turns out, is the perfect metaphor. These shows are starters only. The success of The Feast should be judged on what happens to these shows next. So far, none of the pieces from the first Feast have had ongoing lives. Further development of these works is vital. The Perfect Original seems like it has much more it wants to say and can be extended to a full work. Mr Nancy doesn’t seem like it’s found what it wants to say yet. Sinoatrial feels like it maybe needs a parallel human story to bring an emotional compliment to the work. It is my hope that this season of The Feast proves only the entrée, and not the final meal of these shows.
The Feast is presented by The Feast Collective and plays at The Basement until 1 November.