Features Published 31 August 2015

Mouthful: Playwrights and Scientists At One Table

Metta Theatre is looking into the global food crisis with a production of six new plays by six writers, collaborating with six scientists. Lydia Thomson learns more.
Lydia Thomson

On a global scale, our approach to food cultivation and consumption is at a crisis point. Obesity walks beside starvation due to environmental factors, due to consumer choices, due to money and politics. And for better or worse, we’re getting clever with it: chicken meat is cloned to meet overwhelming demand, while allotments are built on the rooftops of city buildings because we’re running out of space. I’m not intending to preach about vegetarianism, or home gardening, or inspiring the next generation of farmers or paying more for your milk. But what Mouthful will do, presented by Metta Theatre at the Trafalgar Studios and supported by the Wellcome Trust, is to explore these questions alongside unquestionable scientific fact.

Directed by Poppy Burton-Morgan, the production’s response to the global food crisis comprises a collection of six short plays by an exciting bunch of six writers, Lydia Adetunji, Bola Agbaje, Clare Bayley, Inua Ellams, Neil LaBute and Pedro Miguel Rozo, each working in collaboration with six scientists. To discuss the project, I meet with Burton-Morgan and one of the playwrights, award-winning poet Inua Ellams, as well as the scientist he has been working with, Suzanne Filteau, who is Professor of International Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I’m mainly curious as to how the collaboration with science has worked: ironic, then, that we should consistently sidetrack the conversation to discuss media stories and anecdotes about food, with interjections of scientific fact from Filteau. I see exactly how this has worked.

Ellams says of his approach to the brief, “I knew what I wanted to write, but I didn’t know how to make it real enough in terms of the academic side of things, the science side of things. All of that really informs the characters and just populates the reality of the finished piece”. For him, Filteau has been a direct source of information and offers fact checking at the other end of an email. But Filteau’s also keen that Ellams’s focus on character means that the piece resists being a fact heavy, lecture style piece of theatre. Burton-Morgan agrees that “There’s quite a vogue for a kind of ‘science theatre’, but quite often it takes the form of a character who is a scientist giving a lecture and actually, that’s quite a lazy way through it.”

She might well have the Royal Court’s 2071 in mind: a climate change piece that’s one of the more high profile recent examples of didactic science theatre. But even if some audience members found its approach mind-numbingly boring, its scientific message was well worth communicating – so how do you find the balance? Mouthful will weave video projections designed by William Reynolds between each play that provide factual information, enriching the context of the stories. The benefit of programming six short plays is that the evening can feature six separate insights into a different issue, or different angles. “It’s a ten minute punch of an idea”, says Burton-Morgan. With 12 voices (the writers and the scientists, if we don’t also include actors, director and technical aspects), the net is cast wide to reach a varied audience. Burton-Morgan continues: “The food crisis is such a rich and diverse and contested and conflicted thing that you want as many voices as possible.”

The aim at the heart of the production is to inspire audiences to question consumer behaviour. A small change to our habits may indeed be small, but potentially significant. Burton-Morgan offers that if you buy less meat, you can afford to buy the organic vegetables which, Filteau adds, is both the most ethical and the healthiest way of doing things. Ellams expresses his irritation at those who throw good food away just because the packaging says it’s passed its sell-by date, while I’ve started buying milk from independent farmers. When you break things down like that, it seems quite simple. But, as Ellams’ play will show, there are always external contributory factors to consider, and far-reaching knock-on effects. “We can’t present the answers to a global food crisis in a play”, says Burton-Morgan, “But what we can do is go: there is a problem and there is a need for change.”

Playing devil’s advocate while we sit in the rehearsal room, I have to ask, “Why theatre?” Filteau responds with the fun answer, of “Why theatre? Why not?”.  It’s a strong vessel for communicating big ideas. He elaborates to say that there are different ways of getting things across to different people, and as Burton-Morgan observes, theatre is “A human way in”. With regards to the issues presented in Mouthful, she says that, “When you see all those infographics it doesn’t quite enter into you. And then you see a play that has a lot of intricately detailed, truthfully drawn characters that go through some heartbreaking stuff, you can’t not be emotionally affected by that, and that stays with you, in a way that a fact doesn’t.” It is in this sense that Ellams’ work alongside Filteau has proved most effective, as he has been able to draw characters that are as real and believable as possible.

Theatre’s key asset is its variety of communication channels, be that via the building a play is housed in, the audiences it attracts, the creative team behind it or the part of the world it plays in.  Filteau notes that the Trafalgar Studios, being a West End theatre, will receive a different audience to – for example – The Tricycle. We discuss how it is a way of connecting with an audience by a method that is not policed under the same scrutiny as television or newspapers may be. It follows as no accident that our discussion verges into politics and power, and fearful speculations on the altruism of thinking of the future and the corrupt hierarchy of leadership. Unintentionally, each play in Mouthful is presented with a family story, and the theme of what we pass on to the next generation is a common one. Again, this is no accident – the food crisis is a real fear for our future, so it’s little wonder that each writer was inspired to put a family at the centre.

With that, Poppy Burton-Morgan leaves us to contemplate further, and heads home to her own children. Mouths to feed indeed.

MOUTHFUL plays at the Trafalgar Studios from 8th September to 3rd October, and is supported by Arts Council England and the Wellcome Trust. You can buy tickets here, and visit Metta Theatre’s website here.

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Lydia Thomson

Lydia writes about theatre for her own blog and reviews local work for the Basingstoke Gazette and the Hampshire Chronicle. She was also a member of the reviewing team for LIFT 2014. As well as arts journalism, Lydia is a playwright and performance artist working in Hampshire and London. She is an associate artist of Proteus Theatre Company in Basingstoke and is part of the artist's network at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton.

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