Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Food Court, Barbican Centre

Review: Food Court, Barbican Centre

Published on Culture Wars, 26.06.2010

Food Court wants to have its cake and eat it. Which, given that it shows two fat women abusing a far slimmer one for being obsese, is all rather ironic.

Allow me to explain. The five performers that step onto the Barbican stage are all visibly disabled. Two of the women (Sonia Teuben and Nicki Holland) are grossly overweight, though one is never sure whether their size has to do with obesity or disability (or both). Both are squeezed into sparkling gold lycra suits that give them an impression of circus strongmen, albeit ridiculous and clownish. Together they subject a third (Sarah Mainwaring) – spindly by comparison – to a torrent of verbal abuse about her weight. They bark at her, berating her (absurdly) for being fat. They talk about her from the opposite side of the stage as if she wasn’t there. They get in her face. They tower over her. They force her to shake hands, even though her arms are bent awkwardly at the elbows and wrists and her hands shake intermittently and uncontrollably. (It’s worth mentioning, at this point, that it’s sometimes funny; that the text has a blunt directness that makes it clumsy, almost like a distorted high school movie, Mean Girls perhaps.) Mainwaring, by now a picture of vulnerability, sits more or less unresponsive (silent or incapable or speech?) and allows the cruelty to continue. Two men, like a little and large double act, stage manage proceedings, moving chairs and holding boom mics to catch the verbal abuse and the breathy silence, presumably for our benefit.

In the second half (perhaps movement is more appropriate) all this gets more extreme. Behind a misty sellophane screen, back lit by dizzying, swirling, almost nauseating projections that imply woodland, Mainwaring is forced to strip – first to her underwear, then entirely – and then to dance. More and more blurred silhouettes arrive, pointing and staring, before leaving Mainwaring alone with the two women, who mime beating her almost to death with a self-conscious fakeness. (It’s worth mentioning that it’s no longer funny.)

Where the double standard comes in, then, is that Food Court confronts our initial assumptions about and reactions to disability and yet simultaneously relies on them to achieve any emotional punch. When Teuben and Holland step through the curtain our response is invariably, inevitably and automatically a sympathetic one; to pity and think their public presence a beautiful act of bravery or a brave act of beauty. In other words, our starting point is prejudiced. We sanctify these women on the basis of appearance, projecting the status of victim, and we’re wrong-footed by their subsequent actions.

The thing is that our response to the abuse of Mainwaring is also subject to such projections. Her status as victim within the piece is amplified by the same projected status as inherent victim. Isn’t it harder to watch her being forced to strip than a.n. other able-bodied actress? Doesn’t her plight seem all the more undignified?

I suspect that in this I’m problematizing the piece’s internal paradox; that it intends to raise exactly this question (amongst others), that it’s us that want it both ways. That proposition is, in itself, quite interesting, but I found that the paradox stripped the piece of emotional weight – particularly given the freedom of Mainwaring’s actions. For all that the piece infers her to be forced, we know that she chooses, at some level, to stand naked before us. (Not that the piece doesn’t admit of its own failure in this regard, highlighting the pretence of her subsequent ‘murder’ by detaching the image of beating from the sounds produced by the stage managing performers.)

What Food Court has – and this is an elusive and admirable quality – is ‘simplexity’, by which I mean two things. First, that its content has, in and of itself, a certain simplicity. There is a plain unfussiness to its actions, objects, texts and onstage persons. They are presented openly and frankly, very much admitting of themselves. And yet, due to the nature of those people onstage, our reactions are incredibly complex; both multifarious and knotty.

Second, I also intend the opposite of complicity (comp[lex-simpl]licity?), for what happens – both in terms of onstage action/narrative and the assumptions that spring to mind – seem to occur without our permission. Because the bullying onstage cannot be rationally condoned in any way, because it feels like motiveless malignity, it happens at one remove from us. I never imagined myself behaving in the same manner. Perhaps that’s down to the absurd hypocrisy involved. If the piece intends to accuse us of (indirect) complicity through non-interference – much as Niklas Radstrom’s Monsters made explicit – then it is undermined by its own contrivance.

It’s interesting that Monsters should spring to mind in that way, since I couldn’t shake off thoughts of the Bulger case. Perhaps that’s the result of the setting implied by the title, or the walk into isolation (here, the forest). Perhaps it’s to do with the dark fairytale aesthetic that implies a leading astray a la Hansel and Gretel and the stalking of a vulnerable naïf a la Red Riding Hood. Perhaps it’s simply two against one, large against small.

Two further things need mentioning. First, the music composed and played live by The Necks, which has ethereal fuzziness and often feels like low-level whimsical tinnitus. Present but unobtrusive, it serves to enhance the aesthetic quality of the presented action, making it self-conscious (not negatively so) and, in that, also more palatable than one might have expected. Second, Mainwaring’s final monologue, in which she struggles through Caliban’s speech: “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises.” As she grapples with the formulation of sounds into words, the projected letters jangle about on the screen. It’s a neat idea, further complicating the way in which we read the whole, but also a genuinely heartfelt moment that overstepped the contrivance around it. Indeed, it made that contrivance seem all the more evident. The same is true of the curtain call, which felt honest in a way the piece had not. Haphazard, perhaps, but playful and warm and, most importantly, pleased to be in front of/with us. For the first time, collaborative not confrontational.

Really one watches Food Court by watching oneself watching it. Its chief success is to enforce self-reflection, to make us monitor and interrogate our own responses to its individual elements. The thing is, I suppose – and there is probably a certain bourgeois desire for guilty self-flagellation in this – I don’t feel complicit in or responsible for the assumptions in question. I have no choice but to see things – people – in a certain way and it’s certainly not done from spite or visciousness. I can’t control the connotations. I can only register them and perhaps change them for next time. The upshot is that, for me, Food Court became an intellectual conundrum but never a visceral experience and, even in that, it is a dilemma of ethics more than it is a moral problem acutely felt.

Photograph: Jeff Busby


One Comment

  1. wow.. I want to see this. It sounds amazing and fucked up and intresting.

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