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Food Court, Back to Back Theatre Food Court, Back to Back Theatre
photo Jeff Busby
THE LAST TIME I SAW BACK TO BACK THEATRE, THEY WERE FRAMED BY THE CONCRETE PYLONS OF SYDNEY’S CIRCULAR QUAY RAILWAY STATION. IN THAT SHOW, SMALL METAL OBJECTS, THE SPECTATORS BECAME THE SPECTACLE—SITTING IN BLEACHERS IN THE CUSTOMS HOUSE FORECOURT—WHILE THE ACTORS EXPERTLY PERFORMED THEIR INVISIBILITY. IN FOOD COURT, HOWEVER, THE AUDIENCE SITS IN THE CONFINES OF THE OPERA THEATRE, ANONYMOUS AND UNSEEN, AS THE ACTORS ASSUME A SELF-CONSCIOUS HYPERVISIBILITY, COMPLETE WITH RED VELVET CURTAINS AND GOLD LEOTARDS.

Food Court begins with the three musicians from The Necks making their way down to the pit to take up their positions on piano (Chris Abrahams), double bass (Lloyd Swanton) and drums (Tony Buck). The opening notes sound out their instruments, each other, and the audience, two of whom cough in response. The red curtains open to reveal a wide and shallow stage with black drapes which part as a man carrying a wooden chair comes onto the stage. Soon he has set up three chairs and two gloriously, grotesquely overweight ladies in gold leotards (Rita Halabarc and Nicki Holland) join him. They parade like gymnasts at the end of a floor routine: arching, stretching, posing and mugging you might even say. Their glitzy leotards recall the circus or the freak show, where performers with disabilities have historically been placed, and for a moment we wonder whether this show will be any different.

The reply comes soon enough, as a thinner woman (Sarah Mainwaring) enters and seats herself, her hands shaking involuntarily. The other women interrupt their banal conversation—“Have you ever had a hamburger?”—to declare, for no apparent reason, “You’re fat.” Though the insults start with a false innocence—“I don’t want to upset you but…”—they soon come without apology: “You’re fat, you’re a fat lady, you’re disgusting, you’re embarrassing, lose some weight, she can’t even talk, learn to speak English.” The phrases are discomfiting not only because the text is projected onto the black curtains but also because they seem like comments the performers themselves might have heard over the years. When the surtitles falter momentarily it is as if the abuse has become literally unspeakable.

Without landing a single blow, the second act proceeds to unleash extraordinary violence. The black drapes part to reveal a scene behind a milky scrim, distorting the silhouettes behind it and making them seem far away. The music gathers apace as the two women, all the while screaming abuse, force the other to strip slowly and dance naked. When Mainwaring lopes elegantly across the stage, the lighting shifts and what was a black shadow becomes pink flesh as she oscillates to her own hidden rhythm, oddly beautiful. Someone steps in from the side, then another and another, and soon she is surrounded by a crowd standing and pointing at her. The image recalls a schoolyard, a desolate car park, and an asylum, all at once.

When the crowd leaves the stage, the scene shifts and we see a projection of a forest and sky that looks like a Bill Henson photograph. We are in the same liminal zone that his images occupy, though instead of being on the child/adult threshold we are on the border of the human/inhuman or what has been called in the context of Romeo Castelluci’s work (a possible influence) the human/dis-human. One of the characters even calls the victim an “animal person” as they proceed to brutally and relentlessly beat her. In the midst of this violence, there are absurd demands for intimacy: from one gold lycra’d lady to another; from a lonely man (Marc Deans) to the lifeless victim. The scene reaches fever pitch when the victim wrenches the following from her body (and lone letters simultaneously dance into words on the scrim): “Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not …” The lines are from Shakespeare’s The Tempest but by this time my febrile brain thinks of every island under the sun: the Island of Dr Moreau, Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, John Donne’s “No man is an island”, Australia. This chain of thought is typical of the many associations that every image in Food Court creates. Finally, the back screen and scrim fall away, revealing a figure that is brave, humble and all too human.

The image fades, the music softens, and the retina starts to restore itself but the show offers little consolation; even during the curtain call one of the performers appears ill and walks off stage. She is not alone in feeling off balance—coming up into the night air I have a dizzying sense of the bends, a desperate desire to decompress. Compression is key to Food Court, which, like an elegant picture of barbed wire, depicts violence, beauty and tragedy in a single piercing image. Food Court pricks the conscience, senses, skin.


Back to Back Theatre and The Necks, Food Court, director, set design, devisor Bruce Gladwin, performers, devisors Mark Deans, Rita Halabarc, Nicki Holland, Sarah Mainwaring Scott Price, music by The Necks, set design Mark Cuthbertson, lighting design and technical direction Andrew Livingston, bluebottle, animated design Rhian Hinkley, sound design Hugh Covill, costume design Shio Otani; Luminous program, part of Vivid Sydney, Festival of Music Light & Ideas, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 9-10

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 42

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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