Thursday, 24 January 2019

REVIEW: The Futurist Cookbook And Other Culinary Utopias - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Presented as part of the University of Salford’s TaPP (Theatre and Performance Practice) Festival, The Futurist Cookbook and Other Culinary Utopias is a revue show which takes its lead, and title, from the book of the same name by art theorist and poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Fillia (the artistic name of Luigi Colombo). Following on from Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism in 1909 (which decried romantic attachments to the past and declared that “We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice,” as well as seeking to justify war and violence as a way of ‘cleansing’ the world, “We want to glorify war - the only cure for the world - militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman,” in wording which hinted at Marinetti’s later embracing of Fascism), the Cookbook sought to revolutionise how people ate their food – infamously, it declared pasta to be a barbaric food which caused “lassitude, pessimism and lack of passion.”

The show, devised by second year performance students at the University of Salford, combined physical theatre pieces, absurdist and satirical sketches, and audience participation to bring dishes from the Cookbook to life and, following the book’s spirit, attempt to make the audience question what and how they ate. All the performers wore formal black-tie dress, making them look like Maître Ds at a posh restaurant. Holding a permanent place in the downstage left area of the performance space, was a ‘chefs' station’ with an active hot plate where cast members chopped vegetables, added seasoning, and stirred and blended ingredients into a pot to make a “perfect utopian soup”. The rest of the staging consisted of chairs and movable tables with white tablecloths on which moved around depending on what the next sketch was.

The performance opened with a physical theatre piece, where two cast members wearing chef hats mimed chopping and mixing while around them other cast members mimed serving a variety of Futurist meals including “cylindrical meat” and “A new and exciting innovation: salad!” This entrée brought forth the often-bizarre meals present in the Futurist Cookbook which sought to promote “absolute originality in the food.” Throughout the show, the audience were charmingly referred to by the cast as “ladles and gentlespoons” – in keeping with the Absurdist elements within the humour, this show often broke the fourth wall. Following the opening, there was the first of a series of news reports around food consumption: this opening one was situated in 2019 and touched upon the recent controversy over the ‘Vegan sausage roll’ from Greggs and saw the reporter venture into the audience to obtain the opinion of one audience member (who thought it was great as he was a vegetarian).

The next item on the menu, ‘What’s Cooking’, saw three volunteers from the audience blindfolded as two bowls were passed under their noses and they were asked to choose which one they preferred. The winner was Option A, referred to as ‘a sprinkle of creativity.’ This scene was repeated later on with another choice, between ‘Ubiquitous Computing’ and ‘Aviation Technology’, where the winning dish was decided by the audience cheering for their favourite and the winning item was added to the Utopian Soup. While brief interludes, these scenes physically demonstrated one of the instructions for the perfect meal in the Futurist Cookbook: “The rapid presentation, between courses, under the eyes and nostrils of the guests, of some dishes they will eat and other they will not, to increase their curiosity, surprise and imagination.”

The third recurring sketch in the show was “Food Time” hosted by Kieran, whose portrayal was like a blending of Vernon Kay and Paddy McGuiness with cheeky asides to the audience (the actor playing him certainly has a career in game show presenting ahead of him). Of the three sketches, this one was perhaps the most humorous and absurdist with its discussion of food (a meal with cauliflower in was swiftly deemed ‘boring’ by the host). Another news report, this time from 2044, focused on a pill which revolutionised the diet of humans by providing all essential nutrients and meaning the consumption of food was negated, led into the next discussion on Food Time where more audience participation was sought (in summary: the idea of a ‘food replacement pill’ wasn’t popular).

While the sketches were fun and provoked much laughter, the most interesting elements of the show were the physical theatre pieces which brought a robotic, automated sense of movement and rhythm to the preparation and serving of (invisible) food – one piece, at the centre of the show, featured two performers wearing large table like skirts as they performed and moulded dough, while two performers downstage related how Marinetti and his friends created ‘edible sculptures’ of women. This section was interesting as it not only demonstrated another aspect of the Cookbook (food with an artistic function) but gave the audience more of an insight into the Cookbook’s artistic foundation (the book itself was first and foremost an artistic statement rather than a culinary one). The final news item, from 2069, described a world ravaged by global warming where the Amazon Rainforest is no more. The reason for this environmental chaos is because of excessive meat consumption. This sketch seemed to be the outlier of the night: unlike the other pieces this wasn’t amusing or frivolous and had a genuine message which impacted on the world outside of the theatre. While the humour and fun of the other sketches provided amusement, one couldn’t help but wonder if more could have been done to make the audience think more about the ramifications of their dietary decisions.

The Futurist Cookbook was a fun show, although the revue format perhaps masked some important messages about food consumption a little too well. The ensemble seemed to enjoy their performances and several cast members certainly embraced the potential for humour within the sketches and generated much laughter from the audience. There is a blueprint of a stronger show in what was presented here but, as early drafts go, The Futurist Cookbook provided solid entertainment.

Continuing the culinary theme, the second performance of the night was ‘With Bread,’ a work in progress of a piece by “theatre chef” and artist Leo Burtin. As the piece is a work in progress, it would be unfair to thoroughly review the presentation (Burtin and fellow performer Aliki Chapple read off scripts) but at this stage, the show seems interesting. Like The Futurist Cookbook, there was cooking on stage and audience participation; this time, however, it involved three audience members making a flatbread to be shared by them and the audience at the conclusion of the performance. While they made the dough for the bread, Burtin and Chapple described their childhoods in their countries of origin (France and Greece respectively) and how bread played a part in their lives and the lives of their communities. Burtin then described how migrants in history baked their own bread to take away the ‘bitter taste’ of the bread of exile, and Chapple described how humans have always sought to settle down in communities to survive. With a premiere date of 20th March, nine days before the UK leaves the EU, the final version of the show should provide much ‘food for thought’ about migration, community, and food as conversations are shared with bread made onstage by audience members, for audience members and performers to share at the end of the performance.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 23/1/19

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