Foot-Washing for the Sole

Adrian Howell wants to get eye-to-toe with the feet of Belfast at the Belfast Festival at Queen's

‘People think I have a foot fetish, but I’m not interested in feet,’ Adrian Howell says. He pauses and corrects himself. ‘Well, I have gotten interested in feet through this, just not like that.’

‘This’ would be Howell’s intimate, one-on-one performance piece Foot-Washing for the Sole, which he is bringing to Belfast Festival at Queen's. In it Howell washes the audience member’s feet in an intimate, confessional ritual.

You can see why people might be confused as to Howell’s interest in the ten little piggies of the masses. He says he’s not a Christian, so if it isn’t religious, and he isn’t enjoying it a little too much, then what is it all about? ‘It’s face to face, eye to eye, flesh to flesh,’ Howell explains. ‘It’s a real, unmediated encounter with another human being.’

Unmediated, for Howell, means there is no stage, no distance, no discreet fourth wall to keep audience and actor separated. The audience is smaller than the theatres Howell used to perform to, but the quality of the interaction is more important to him than the quantity.

Howell’s last experience with mediated theatre, working with Nigel Chernook’s company DV8, left him burnt out. Chernook’s physically and emotionally demanding style left Howell ‘saturated beyond the capability of working for other practitioners'.

He describes it as unzipping himself on stage every night, spilling out painful memories and experiences to an audience who didn’t care about him. ‘They didn’t give a monkeys,’ Howell says. ‘No-one was waiting at the theatre door to say “Can I help zip you back up?”. They just kept absorbing me. Audiences are like that. They can be quite greedy.’

Howell had always strived to create an intimate performance, connecting with each member of the audience. Now he wants to explore ways to make a genuine connection in his one-to-one work.

Foot-Washing for the Sole was inspired in part by a 2008 visit to Israel. When he left he was overwhelmed by the sense of disharmony between Jews and Arabs on a day-to-day basis. Wanting to respond to that artistically, Howell began to research both Judaism and Islam. The passage in John 12 where Lazarus’ grateful sister washes Jesus’ feet resonated with him. ‘What a gesture to make,’ he says. ‘If only we could respond to death, disharmony and violence by offering to wash someone’s feet?’

There is something both intimate and vulnerable in the act of washing someone’s feet, says Howell. The idea also fit with his research into risk and intimacy in confessional performance during a three-year creative fellowship in Glasgow University.

Howell points out the odd dynamic at work in the Foot-Washing for the Sole. He kneels, subservient, to the audience member having their feet washed. Yet they are the vulnerable ones, barefoot and not knowing the shape the performance will take. He describes what happens in the room between them as alchemy.

Of course, most people who attend his performances are already open to the experience. People who aren’t sure or who don’t like their feet just don’t turn up. Would it have the same effect on someone who wasn’t engaged?

‘I was at a festival in Munich where my audience had booked in advance but hadn’t read the brochure. They wanted to know where the audience was and why on earth I wanted them to take off their socks. It was strange and they were a bit alarmed, but no-one said no. Everybody decided to do it and afterwards said they were glad they did.’

As for whether Howell is always glad about doing it, he admits that sometimes he finds the feet he has to wash unappealing. It is part of the deal he makes with the audience, though. They allow him to wash their feet; he must be compassionate towards them. ‘I set the aim of falling in love with their feet,’ he explains. Just not too much in love.

Foot-Washing for the Sole runs throughout the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's, but there are only 30 tickets available. So book yours now if you want to experience this intimate performance.

Tammy Moore