Roysten Abel's hypnotic fusion of culinary and performance art is a sumptuous metaphor for human experience that will inflame the senses
A man and a woman are cooking live on the stage of the Grand Opera House. Beside them are two pinch-waist pots and behind them are tiers of people inside an enormous forty foot urn.
The man and the woman go about their business in dignified, mechanical silence, just the occasional rim shot from a clanged pot echoing through the room as steams rises, billowing, smoky blue under the spotlights.
A single drum begins and you realise that the twelve seated figures are drummers, each playing a mizhavu, a barrel shaped drum from South India. As the couple start to stir their pots with large poles the drummer is joined by three others, beating out a rhythmic tattoo, slowly but insistently.
The set appears to have grown out of the earth: the heavy wooden frames holding the drums and the drummers themselves, mirrored in the couple’s cooking pots, are uniformly dun coloured, the blue belching steam and the isolated white figures of the stricken couple starkly contrasted.
There is something magical about the uniformity of the drummer’s hands, each lit in isolation with every beat, against the great dark wall behind them. They dance like literal fingers of flame, guttering pilot lights in an immensity of darkness.
While the drumming continues the couple add further ingredients, their stirring a harder slog with each bowlful. You can hear their grunts over the drumming; see the way they sweat, slowly bending their bodies into hard, angular shapes.
They press themselves into the poles like gondoliers marooned on a sandbank, and all the while they add more ingredients – well that isn’t going to make it any easier!
But that’s the idea: the cast may look aghast as they trudge through the motions, like Sisyphus sorting out his recycling, but this kitchen is a metaphor for human experience: this recipe will take everything that we put into it, hoping that we won’t be found wanting by the great Mary Berry in the sky.
It is Beckettian in its relentless, solipsistic role playing, the colour scheme a Caravaggio nocturne, as the couple embark on an agonised crawl through their lives.
And as the drums continue, a second tier joining the first, adding detail and colour to the playing, strange things start to happen in your brain. Other musical instruments appear to creep in.
As the sound bounces off the fine acoustics of the Opera House, I can hear distant, muffled human voices, roaring water, all manner of oneiric noises. That aren’t there, of course, it’s another kind of pareidolia: seeing faces in the fire.
The echoing drums are fizzing off all sorts of strange connections in our heads. The figures on stage become a narrative hook, a story to latch all these peculiar echoes onto. It’s an extraordinary piece of theatre.
The two actors commit to an extraordinary stillness. For long periods of time they are frozen and yet you never doubt their energy. They seem coiled the entire time. It must be exhausting.
The shifts and permutations of the drums remain exciting throughout: they rev like an engine, reverb adding sawing strings, screaming voices. As all the drums play at once each player is afforded two second samba-like solos, individually lit up for the duration.
The lighting throughout has been crisply perfect, the set design too, is utterly gorgeous. It’s one of those shows where everything moves together. In essence this is two people cooking in front of a live audience while music plays.
You might expect Tim Lovejoy to appear and do a witless 'to camera' piece. But this show magnifies the act of cooking to a universal struggle: to create, to live, to exist and every component part of the production adds to that. The performance is huge, maddening, deafening and vital.
As we shuffle out, with the drums still ringing in our ears, we are handed a cupful of the food that had been prepared on-stage by the grinning cast, pleased no doubt that their shuffle through this mortal coil has ended.
It is a traditional Indian dessert called payasam, a sweet and spicy concoction of rice and almonds and an appropriate palate cleanser for such a synaesthesiatic performance. On the street outside a pair of DeLoreans have pitched up to celebrate Back to the Future Day, which this apparently is. I don’t bat an eye.
It seems strange that the Grand Opera House, albeit usually in conjunction with a festival – this one being the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival – can put on these astounding shows amid the pantomimes and the dinner shows that are its stock-in-trade.
It shows a surprising commitment to theatre that they occasionally pitch this sort of curveball. Long may they continue to do so.
The Kitchen performs the second of its two-night run at the Grand Opera House, Belfast tonight. For more booking information and remaining tickets visit www.goh.co.uk/the-kitchen.