Walking across Princes Bridge last week, on the night of the lunar eclipse, I felt a sudden buoyancy, as if my heart were pumped full of helium. It was the opening of Rising, a clear, chilly Melbourne winter evening, and Maree Clarke and Mitch Mahoney’s Ancestral Memory – a projection of a Spirit Eel winding through blue waters – was twining across the facade of Hamer Hall.
I was on my way to see Back to Back Theatre’s Food Court at the Playhouse but, like other passers-by, I stopped to watch the aqueous dream unfolding before me. There weren’t as many people out as might have been expected – the shadow of lockdown was already pressing down on the city. But for that evening – as Rainer Maria Rilke says, “one measure of time barely / measurable between two whiles” – I felt the breath of freedom, the liberating expansion of being that is the unique gift of art.
I had forgotten what that feels like. Perhaps this forgetting is part of our consciousness now, in these times of continual blaring emergency; perhaps part of us finds it too painful to remember. Our lives are circumscribed by a present in which the future can feel too frightening to imagine and the past is somehow deracinated, a place of joys and sadnesses that seem unbearably far away.
Part of the magic of that evening was seeing, once again, one of the best works of theatre I have witnessed. Food Court had a massive impact on me when I saw its premiere at the 2008 Melbourne Festival. I still remember the dead silence that greeted it at the end – it was long seconds before the stunned audience at The Malthouse burst into applause. It has seldom been produced since, because of the difficulty of aligning the Back to Back company with The Necks, who provide the live sound.
Naturally I wondered whether it would hold up. Return can be perilous. And theatre is an art of the ephemeral – it only ever happens in the present moment, its delights and disappointments always amplified by its insistence that we attend, now, because even if we see the same show again it will never be the same.
Of course it was a different show. This time I was watching it with my memories of the first production playing in my head: this time I knew what would happen, I knew where its tragedy was leading us. And this time I walked out with the kind of magisterial thought I try to avoid, because it usually amounts to freezing a living, changeable thing into a deathly cultural artefact. Food Court, I thought, is a masterpiece.
Directed and designed by Back to Back’s artistic director Bruce Gladwin and devised by the original cast (Mark Deans, Rita Halabarec, Nicki Holland, Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price), Food Court is in essence very simple. It’s a banal story about an incident of violence that begins when two women start abusing another woman in a food court. But it’s a work that brings into this story dimensions of complexity and depth that do more than represent violence: they enact its full meaning. In this sense, it’s pitiless. But somehow, without fetishising or diminishing this violence, it’s also beautiful.
One of the many discomforts of this show is the inescapable double knowledge that, although we are watching disabled people enact this violence on each other, it’s primarily a violence they have suffered from an abled world. Their performances are at once a reflection of how dominance is internalised and reproduced as lateral violence – how power can fracture our capacity for kinship – and a representation of devastating lived experiences of human cruelty.
The show begins with the entrances of The Necks – Chris Abrahams (piano), Lloyd Swanton (bass) and Tony Buck (drums) – who settle in front of the stage, under low lighting, and start the score that drives underneath the action of the show. It’s gentle at first, a trickle of piano, the brush of drums, and gradually becomes more insistent. After a while, performer Mark Deans emerges in front of a black curtain to set up. He brings out one plain, plastic chair, placing it carefully on its mark, and then another, and another.
Gradually the rest of the cast emerges. Deans comically scurries between the performers with a boom mic, amplifying their dialogue, which is projected in big surtitles on the curtain. The mood begins to darken when two women in gold skin-tight suits (Tamika Simpson and Sarah Goninon) begin to abuse another (Sarah Mainwaring), who is sitting alone and silent on the other side of the stage, her body shaken by cerebral palsy.
“You’re fat,” they jeer. She says nothing. They come closer to berate her. She still says nothing. It begins to become unbearable: we see – no, we feel – the entitlement of the bullies, how that very entitlement silences their victim, how she has no capacity to answer back. “You stink, you pig,” they say.
The stage shifts: the curtain is drawn back to be replaced by a semi-opaque scrim, behind which we watch the rest of the action. Now we are in the forest: a dark backwood of the human psyche. We can see what is happening as taunts evolve into sexual humiliation and violence, but only in blurry outline. Her tormentors force Mainwaring to undress, and then they order her to dance. Her dancing, despite the mockery, is beautiful. Then they beat her.
We see others entering the stage, a forest of arms pointing at her humiliation. They exit at last, leaving Mainwaring lying on the ground. A man (Mark Scott) enters and sits beside her and speaks about his sexual loneliness: another encounter that is rifted with both threat and vulnerability. He leaves without touching her.
When Mainwaring is finally alone, she slowly dresses herself. And then she recites Caliban’s speech from The Tempest, the projected words spiralling into lines of verse on the scrim as she speaks. “Be not afeard, The isle is full of noises / Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not…”
Since I first saw this show, I have never been able to read those lines without weeping. I will always see Mainwaring speaking them, in one of the most courageous and truthful renderings of a text I have seen in my life. “And then, in dreaming, / The clouds methought would open and show riches / Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked / I cried to dream again.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 5, 2021 as "Court of catharsis".
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