Performance review: Food, Perth Festival

Interactive show where audiences are invited to have a seat at the table.
‘Food’ at Perth Festival 2024. Photo: Maria Baranova. Audiences sit at a large table covered by a white table cloth. A glowing chandelier hangs above them, while the performer is serving audiences wine.

New York-based performance-maker Geoff Sobelle’s Food masquerades as an absurdist audience interactive clown show, but gradually reveals a more ominous (not to say omnivorous) intent – as foreshadowed by the sombre 19th century hunting painting that hangs on the upstage wall of the set.

Food is being staged for Perth Festival in the appropriately Edwardian-Baroque ambience of His Majesty’s Theatre – appropriate because the show itself becomes increasingly baroque in form and mood. The audience is seated onstage around three sides of a huge table covered with a white tablecloth. Selected audience members sit at the table and are served wine and food, as well as being asked to make various other contributions during the show; the rest of us are on three banks of seating behind them and are also occasionally asked to pour wine or perform other tasks.

Sobelle plays the role of the host and head waiter, dressed in white shirtsleeves and black waistcoat, pants and shoes. His persona is initially relaxed and affable, if a little aloof, as he chats with the audience, gives instructions and serves his “guests”.

An initial guided meditation on the evolution of life on Earth from the perspective of eating and food is followed by an audience participation sequence using wine-tasting as a jumping-off point for shared memories, which creates a sense of community and intimacy. The distribution of menus, taking of orders and delivery of food “from farm to table” leads to an escalating sequence of comic routines, including the disinterring of a baked potato seeded and watered in a pile of earth, and the retrieval of a “live” Arctic char from beneath the surface of the tablecloth, which has been transformed by the lighting design into a frozen sea.

About half an hour into the show, Sobelle sits down, begins eating an apple, removes his shoes and falls silent; the veneer of affability falls away, and the tone and form of the work changes radically. An extended sequence (reminiscent of Marco Ferreri’s 1973 film La Grande Bouffe) follows in which Sobelle devours the leftovers from the audience’s meals in an impossible feat of gluttony (involving some deftly executed sleight-of-hand) that includes smoking and eating a packet of cigarettes (which are swallowed while still alight) as well as consuming a box of matches, a mobile phone, a pile of napkins and two bottles of wine. 

In short: we’re now firmly in the realm of the grotesque – as well as an increasingly (and deliberately) heavy-handed satire on consumerism. This soon gives way to an even more extended sequence on the theme of ecological destruction (placing Food in conversation with two other works in this year’s Perth Festival, The Jungle Book Reimagined and Are we not drawn onward to new erA). A now dishevelled, food- and wine-stained Sobelle drags the tablecloth away to reveal a landscape of parched earth, crawls onto it and carefully manoeuvres a miniature herd of toy bison across the plain before returning them to the dust from whence they came (for me this was the most moving image of the entire show).

Stalks of wheat sprout mechanically from the dirt, and a new “herd” of toy agricultural and extractive machinery is unleashed across the depleted landscape, including diggers, trucks and eventually oil-cranes (after Sobell plunges his arm into the earth and pulls it out again covered with thick black liquid). Toy buildings sprout from the dirt like weeds, and the audience is encouraged to place other toy structures and dwellings around the edge of the landscape.

In the closing section of the work, an audience member recites a litany of foodstuffs that have been hunted, gathered, farmed, engineered or manufactured throughout history, while Sobell stands behind them and touches the back of the participant’s head, as if in an act of telepathic dictation (I, for one, couldn’t see how this particular magic act was done). Finally, he digs a pit in the centre of the table, lowers himself into it and disappears in an act of self-burial, as if on behalf of our entire species. 

Sobell’s performance is exquisitely judged and impeccably skilled as he moves from clowning and magic (the show is co-created by magician Steve Cuiffo) to more ambiguous, less easily digested (if you’ll pardon the pun) forms of movement-based image making. Co-director Lee Sunday Evans keeps things smoothly flowing and changing. Isabella Byrd and Devin Cameron’s lighting gently leads us from the simplicity of the initial conceit (an evenly lit restaurant, a fake candle) to increasingly heightened states of theatricality; Tei Blow and Tyler Kieffer’s subtle and detailed sound design almost imperceptibly transports us from the here-and-now to ever-more expansive circles of attention and concern.

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On the night I attended, the audience seemed noisily determined to enjoy the show on their own terms and were perhaps less comfortable with the shift from audience participation, clowning and magic to the darker realms of almost misanthropic social satire and ecological critique. For my part, I felt that the work was somehow disjointed and even unclear in terms of its overall form and intention, and that the audience response to some extent reflected this.

I enjoyed the level of agency and freedom that we were given in the opening section, especially in the sharing of stories. In the central section; however, we were silent witnesses and, in the closing section, the participants effectively became puppets or automatons, mindlessly obeying instructions or repeating a list of words. 

Somehow, in the face of consumer capitalism and the environmental crisis that afflicts us, we need to be given a sense of agency and empowerment. Otherwise we’re merely cogs in a machine or, worse, the mindless agents of our own destruction.

Co-Creator, Performer and Co-Director: Geoff Sobelle
Co-Creator/Magician: Steve Cuiffo
Co-Director: Lee Sunday Evans
Sound Designer: Tei Blow
Original Lighting Designer: Isabella Byrd
Lighting Designer: Devin Cameron
Chandelier Creator: Steven Dufala
Props Creators: Jessie Baldinger, Julian Crouch, Steve Cuiffo, Nathan (Pierre) Lemoine, Raphael Mishler, Connor O’Leary, Geoff Sobelle, Matthew Soltesz, Christopher Swetcky
Associate Sound Designer: Tyler Kieffer
Production Stage Manager: Kelsey Vivian
Assistant Stage Manager: Red Guhde
Production Manager/Technical Director: Chris Swetcky
Creative Producer: Jecca Barry

Food is performing until 2 March at His Majesty’s Theatre as part of Perth Festival 2024.

Wolfgang von Flügelhorn is a writer and critic based in Perth.