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Auckland Arts Festival: The Kitchen - review

Mar 16, 2015 Theatre

Until I saw The Kitchen I had no idea what the rhythm of remorse sounded like. Once you hear it, it’s unmistakable – the aching pitter-patter of 120 fingertips skipping over taught leather skins on 12 sacred South Indian drums. It comes out of a tense stillness after the thrash of anger, a precursor to the pulse of ecstasy.

Myriad emotions of a marriage are portrayed crystal clearly in this wordless theatre work that’s neither a play, nor dance, nor concert but has elements of all three. A middle-aged couple sit centre stage at two giant cooking pots. Through the course of the performance they pour ghee, sugar, milk, rice, nuts and cardamom into the pots with slow choreographed movements, cooking up payasam dessert as a metaphor for love. As metaphors go, director Roysten Abel has chosen a pretty straightforward one. Take a little sugar and spice, add some hard work and you’re rewarded with something sweet. Like anything created in a kitchen, timing is the key success factor and Abel knows just how to measure out his recipe.

Abel allows space for the audience to bring their own experience to bear. At times it feels like too much space. The sight of a man and woman silently stirring is hardly fascinating. But then you notice the glances. The hunched shoulders. The fingers shaking from the effort of lifting 25kg of milk. Every tiny movement suggests something larger. That space can trip you up. It’s monotonous. You find yourself waiting for something more – for the cooks to speak or get up and dance. Anything. But monotonousness sets the mind wandering and suddenly you’re thinking about something in your own life that’s probably directly related to what’s happening on stage and you realise that was the intention all along. This is one show I recommend turning up to with emotional baggage.

Meanwhile, cooking continues and from time to time enticing smells of caramelised sugar and warm milk waft from the stage, but only subtly. SkyCity Theatre is a sterile room and the aroma is quickly snatched away by the efficient air-conditioning system. You have to wait until the end to really experience what’s in the pot. The rich spicy rice mixture is ladled out for the audience to eat in the lobby.

The show’s pace is set by a dozen shirtless drummers sitting three tiers high on a scaffolding structure resembling both a mizhav (an ancient drum rarely heard outside Hindu temples of Kerala) and a traditional cooking pot. The masterful drummers are revealed gradually. Spotlights illuminate their fingers dancing out the beat like flickering flames. The relentless beat of the drums leads you on a meditation of everyday life that transcends monotony and becomes something so immersive and poignant that the spectacular clattering finale comes too soon – even if you do get something hot and yummy on the way out.

The Kitchen: SkyCity Theatre until March 18.


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