Foot-Washing for the Sole

Joe Nawaz gets lost in a moment

The taxi-driver leaves me by the granite bulk of Mountpottinger Presbyterian Church. This is the unlikely spot where I - with huge wobbly trepidation, mind - am going to try out Foot-Washing for the Sole, the most intimate performance I may see/feel/recoil from in my life.

Only it’s the wrong Mountpottinger Presbyterian Church. The right one is two blocks up and it’s called Mountpottinger Reform (or Unitarian) Presbyterian Church – splitters. That’s the trouble with the restless secessionist tendencies of protesting Christianity: you invariably end up missing out on a lovely scented foot massage.

Once I find the more homely Unitarian church I remember what the blurb for Foot-Washing for the Sole said. It’s not too promising for uptight and decidedly body-horrified me.

It’s just me and performance artist Adrian Howells in a darkened room, possibly with a scented candle or two. He then washes, anoints and offers to kiss my feet. The promotional image in the programme doesn’t make me feel any better – it’s of a topless shaved-headed man, presumably Howells, nuzzling a random foot, seemingly in throes of ecstatic rapture.

I am reminded of the lovely scene in the amazing Susan and Darren from Quarantine Theatre Company where Susan washes and anoints the body of her real life son Darren right under your nose. But they were only blurring the lines between audience and performers. In Foot-Washing for The Soul there doesn’t appear to be any line to blur.

That terror of intimacy is why I decided to do this. A grown man shouldn’t recoil in horror just because a stranger is performing the most tactile and sensual of rituals on a usually hidden part of your body. Yet I do. Perhaps it is the challenge to one’s personal space, masculinity, the distrust of his own body and others? Or it could be all of the above that make this such a mortifying prospect? Surely it’s just a simple symbolic and ritualistic exchange – a performance.

Time to go in and face my fears. 'There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…' I chant on my way into the church. Of course, I go in through the wrong entrance and end up blundering straight into Howells' preparation area. It reduces the anxiety level immediately.

A cheerful man, Howells remains polite and un-phased at my faux-pas. He also appears to be wearing David Carradine’s kung-fu pyjamas. This is a further comfort, sort of.

Howells gets his assistant Helen to gently lead me away like a confused geriatric while he finishes preparations. Helen tells me that she’s completing a PhD based on theatre and intimacy. ‘My favourite and least favourite things combined,’ I joke. She smiles benignly.

Howells is ready for me. I remove my shoes and socks (but not my coat, thank you very much), and am invited into what may be the vestry. It is, as anticipated, candle-lit.

Howells sits me down and kneels at my feet. He asks me to take seven deep breaths at my own pace while he does the same. It’s all so… spiritual, and I’m the kind of abject rationalist who balks at the mention of ‘that sort of thing’. But the doors are locked and a deadline is looming so I comply with a series of short, sharp, twitchy gasps. I finish a good 20 seconds before Howells even opens his eyes.

After our breathing, the calm, gentle and polite Howells goes through the ritual of washing my feet, explaining each stage before he does it. I am reminded that Howells was refused permission to perform his foot washing for the high-security prisoners of Maghaberry Prison recently, for fear of ’the health effects’ it might have on the already psychologically damaged inmates.

‘It’s a process that can draw out incredible feeling and emotion,’ Howells reveals, and then he asks me about my feet. The words 'quickest-shod', 'soonest mended' and 'unsightly' spring to mind and I change the subject. Howells explains that he was inspired to create this project by the plight of Israeli Arabs and the wider, endless truth of communal tension. By the act of footwashing, Howells explains, he learns humility, which in turn empowers him. He thanks the recipient for that.

It should be absolutely excruciating. But it’s not. It’s actually a moving and thoughtful exchange. Within moments, I almost forget that a complete stranger is attending to my furthermost extremities whilst we impart vignettes of a personal and intimate nature.

This is all about trust, of course. Not the trust between performer and audience, but the trust in a total stranger, in our fellow man, if you want to be mawkish about it. It’s quite something to allow a stranger into your personal perimeter in a situation shorn of ironic relief or physical desire. To simply be in a moment with somebody and lose any sense of pressure or trepidation is in itself a remarkably disquieting experience. By the time we get to the dreaded foot-kissing part I’m three parts relaxed to one-part 'Mr Grimsdale!'.

I let Howells kiss my feet. It’s not too horrible, but I’d be lying if I said I was totally comfortable with it. After that, the timer is pretty much up. Even spiritual enlightenment runs to the clock in a free-market society.

I walk out... pretty much the same. I'm not a different, better or less uptight person, but there is a sense of having partaken in something rather lovely. My feet thank me for it and my heart thanks me just a little, and on the way out, I bump into a journalist colleague who looks flustered trying to find the way in. 'You’ll never guess where the taxi dropped me off,' she says breathlessly.