Rising from the dirt in scraps of cloth, with bowls tied to their ankles with ribbons, Clout performers Sacha Plaige,George Ramsay and Jennifer Swingler wake in FEAST to discover they are shaking with hunger. In the first section, Breakfast, they are presented with cornflakes that fall on them like rain, and then through Lunch a growing abundance of food, a banquet table, where they indulge in messy, over-the-top rituals, fetishizing their relationship with sustenance in the third and final clinical and chilling section, Dinner. George Ramsay calls me while he’s on the way to Battersea Arts Centre, caught between a busy Clapham road and some 90s RnB.
David Ralf: How has your first run at BAC been going, before you head up to Edinburgh?
GR: Basically what we do is leave the polishing of the show to the very last minute because we deliberate for ages about what we want the show to be. We prioritise that, so there’s always a last minute scramble. And we’re still changing stuff. There was a very different feel especially to the last chapter last night, because there was something about the physicality and the play, there was bit of ambiguity about where it lies, because obviously there’s an element of something performance art-y, but we wanted to find what the theatrical language of that is as well.
DR: If the show itself is still being fixed down in these early performances, how do Clout’s rehearsals manifest? Are they quite intellectual?
GR: They’re quite discursive – we vary within the company, obviously, as to how kinethestic we are, but for a physical theatre company we do a lot of talking – there’s not a lot of improvisation. Improvisation fills in the gaps. Some companies will create their material through improvisation much more, whereas in our approach, the idea in its inert form comes first and we ask how can we realise that.
DR: In the middle section, Lunch, it seems as if there were moments that might have arrived through improvisation?
GR: Yeah, that section doesn’t work without an audience. And actually some of what you saw would not have existed before we had an audience there – you have the ‘slalom poles’ you lay out for yourself, and because we’re big show offs or whatever, or lazy, or because of our natural energy because we need an audience to make that dialogue happen, particularly with more clowning and bouffon-y stuff, when an audience are there, new bits of writing come, especially in the opening few days we first what the play between us is and where the life in it is.
DR: It felt as if the wine-tasting section had the closest relationship to what I understand as bouffon.
GR: Actually yes, that’s quite a classically – we like to use Buffon, but we don’t tend to use it in the way it was done, like a pedagogical tool at Lecoq, because we actually kind of disagreed with the way they taught it in some ways, but now I think about it, that section is very specifically knocking something recognisable. That’s kind of what they go for at the school – and it works, and that’s why they pushed it at the school, it makes sense, you know. I like that moment a lot actually. It’s fun. We also like to go for a more mysterious bouffon, you don’t know exactly what it’s mocking. Our first show, was an kind of absurd bouffon, it wasn’t very specific, it was sort of grotesque for its own sake.
DR: Do you think of FEAST as a political show? Clout’s previous piece, the Daniil Kharms show, which you toured to China and wrote about for Exeunt, was explicitly political.
GR: I wouldn’t say that How A Man Crumbled was explicitly political. With his story you can’t avoid politics, he pretty much starved to death in a Stalinist prison because of what he wrote, but we didn’t really push that, we left it to simmer, within the work. It was more about absurdity really, kind of aggressive protest against the world in the form of absurdity. I think that actually FEAST is more political. Even though it’s quite abstract, we’ve talked a lot more about what we want to say politically, than we did with the Kharms show. I think there we were maybe saying more what he was saying, channelling him. With FEAST, we didn’t set out to make a political show, we set out to make a show about food. And actually we set out to make a show about identity, but we changed that. We wanted very simply to make a show about food, and then the more that we researched, and played around and looked at what that meant – you can’t talk about food without it becoming political, because if you talk about excess, or you talk about race, or you talk about hunger – any of these things is so elemental to human existence that of course it’s going to have a political dimension. And food is very tied to identity. In quite an abstract way that’s what the final chapter, Dinner, is getting at. Our use of food to express who we are, rather than pure nutrition. In contemporary existence we for the most part (I mean I’m speaking about the western world) we don’t have to fight to survive. We have enough food. And so it becomes an accessory. We have the phenomenon of food porn, where people post beautiful instagrammed shots of what they’re eating for dinner. It’s just hilarious. This is how I’m living, this is how wonderfully I’m living, look at how healthy or creative – I don’t know, I guess we pushed a lot of that kind of social media into a violent pornographic realm. There’s a kind of David Cronenberg’s Crash kind of feel.
DR: Related to that body horror, I said to you when we first met that I was excited about seeing FEAST because I love watching eating on stage. I can’t look away, and although it’s often a mark of naturalism as they work their way through a meal onstage (although other plays foreground this oddness, like the entire two-tray box of chocolates eaten by the actor playing Robin in Sarah Kane’s Cleansed) I’m not pulled into the moment with the character, I’m staring at the actor: their mouth, their planning of their daily routine around this onstage moment. What’s FEAST’s relationship to really eating onstage and to faking it?
GR: There’s a kind of a realness to Breakfast, it’s the only time we actually eat anything in the show – we eat cornflakes. It’s ironic given how much food there is, there’s a kind of realness also to the earth, it’s very elemental. Then when you get to Lunch it’s totally artificial. The whole thing’s artificial. We don’t eat a single thing, and we mimic eating, and we spit it all out, and we waste it. And it’s very artifical, it’s about artificiality. It’s about a kind of Baroque excess. There’s an artificiality there, something kind of unnecessary. And then there’s no eating in Dinner, there’s none, but there’s a realness too in a way – it’s even more removed in a way because it’s filmed – with live video designed by lighting and sound designer Erik Perera. You’re not even watching reality, you’re watching it through a camera. But we had a moment of asking ‘can we afford to do this show with all this food’ and we started talking about how we could get fake food. Or fake steaks, or early on, the first thing we said is that we’d like to do a show about food and not use any food. And the more we worked, we found that the interesting thing about food is… food. Whilst it’s also about how it says such huge amounts about being human, in visual terms, what’s so delightful about it is itself. So even if there’s not a realness to FEAST, our style is heightened, and we’re not sitting down and eating a three course meal, and there’s not that kind of performance-y realness to it, whatever realness is – I think that for us mime isn’t interesting. It’s necessary for us to have the actual objects there.
DR: I’m thinking about those very present bodily moments, the mouths held open by retainers, dripping saliva, the mouth stuffed full of raw onion, the triple use or threat of the mouth being used for breathing, speaking and eating. That we can stuff ourselves to the point of choking. Is that a kind a kind of absurdity?
GR: I suppose so – absurdity comes in many forms, and one of its main forms is repetition, so the repetitive act of stuffing oneself, and then it coming out the other end, that’s a kind of absurdity, the daily routine, I guess that there’s something about the way that our show is about routine – Breakfast Lunch and Dinner, the things that endlessly repeat, that’s I guess the primary form of absurdity.
DR: Clout is an avowedly international company and we were talking about food being integral to identity in some ways, and national identities certainly. Did you find that there were any differences in the company in the way that you approached things as you were rehearsing?
Yes! Basically our director, Mine Cerci, is Turkish, and the whole thing of milk and cornflakes in the morning, whilst that does exist in Turkey, they’re still quite traditional about food in Turkey, very traditional, they’ve got amazing food, and Turkish breakfast is eggs and white cheese and seeds and jam, and she was a bit like, “I don’t get it. This isn’t Breakfast.” She obviously knew, but there was something in her, that made her go, you know, “I’m not sure about this”. At one point she was more into the idea of it being fruits, and very ‘early’ foods. So that was one thing that’s culturally different.
DR: What has your relationship to food through the process of doing the show been like? It’s one of those things that you can’t get away from it, it’s not like you can do the show and not eat during the process, you still have to have lunch during your break.
You do think about it, but at the same time food is just so elemental, that it just continues. I’m personally obsessed with food anyway, so I spent a lot of time cooking and preparing food. I don’t think I’m particularly a better shopper either since doing it. The show in itself is morally dubious. We buy £2 chickens from ASDA. That’s fucking bullshit. £2 chickens from ASDA is exploitative, and really the whole farming of chickens is appalling, but the show is saying we’re all implicated, and so is this show. We’re pointing a finger at everyone including ourselves, I guess.
DR: And again maybe that’s connected to the absurdity of what FEAST shows.
GR: We’re very interested in this Gurdjieffian idea – George Gurdjieff, the Armenian spiritualist – that we put ourselves in the prison. We’re not put in a prison. In the first section, in Breakfast, there’s a sense that maybe we are put there, that these characters who are walking around with a ball and chain, the bowls and chains by our designer Naomi Kuyck-Cohen, that maybe they have been put there. At the beginning, there’s an alarm that goes off that rouses them, something exterior. But the more it goes on, the more we become in control, but we put ourselves back in the prison in Dinner, where we have plenty and we waste it, and that’s basically a prison that we’ve created ourselves. So in that sense perhaps it is quite a sad show because it’s quite a nihilistic message, even if there is a joy to it, and in Lunch we’re saying food is fucking great. It’s quite carnivalesque, there’s something quite liberating, I think, and hope, that there’s something about wasting all that food, that whilst appalling and kind of offensive in a way, it’s also really enjoyable, because it’s taboo, you’re just not meant to do that. You’re not meant to waste steaks because they’ve come from a cow that’s had to die for them. But somehow doing a dance with them, throwing them around does feel quite liberating in a way.
FEAST will be at ZOO Sanctuary at 3.55pm throughout the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.