Culinary tours of the globe are a mainstay of middle-brow cultural tourism. The Jamie Oliver Annual drops every year like clockwork, with recipes from Italy or the USA or the pub with pictures of locals picking tomatoes and driving pick-ups. Belarus Free Theatre take it, shaggy, shallow anecdotes and all and ram it down the throat in an obliteration of capital punishment that lets nobody off the hook.
Instead the hooks are loaded with the shaming bodies of political prisoners until the banquet is an overloaded meat locker. The conceit occasionally frays, and righteous fury gives way to the odd patch of naivety, but the energy and openness of Trash Cuisine’s presentation makes its vital message inescapable.
The opening ‘strawberries and cream’ vignette is a bit Salò by numbers, as as two state-sponsored executioners discuss methods of murder as the stuff themselves with fruit and abuse the servants. As a criticism of either desensitisation or the inhumanity of ruling powers it’s overplayed, and it generates a certain trepidation for Belarus’ ability to wheedle the specifics out of their weighty theme. It’s a wobble that’s never repeated, fortunately, and the remainder of the experience is a merciless plea for mercy in the face of state-sponsored murder, wherever or however it manifests itself.
Though the mockocracy of Belarus is always beating in the background, the Free Theatre are as concerned with the human reality of capital punishment across the world as they are with that of the country which has worked to drive their performances underground and overseas. Clive Stafford-Smith’s description of a prisoner’s progress to the electric chair, moving through arbitrary appeal processes and paperwork to the death chamber, is performed by miming couples squabbling over their Dutch bill. An astonishing sequence sees a comedian impersonate various methods of execution, culminating in an imitation of an electric chair in waves of looped screams that howl in your ears like harmonic storms. There’s no room for British smugness here, either, as the story of Liam Holden’s treatment during the Troubles brings the point within spitting distance of our shores.
There are elements of documentary in projected statistics, but the emphasis is squarely on the visceral. The culinary metaphor develops into more than an excuse for cultural multiplicity, as rituals of food preparation, service and consumption are scoured for their inherent cruelties and power systems. The mechanics of cooking, the cutting, roasting and grinding present a gruesome analogue for execution, but in their gleeful centrality to human society they also suggest a barely concealed barbarism, one that finds a similar relief in the extermination of criminals.
The most powerful metaphor features the gastronomic extremity of the Ortolan Bunting ritual, in which a songbird is trapped in a box for a month, force fed, boiled in Armagnac and devoured whole, its bones cutting the gums and adding a bloody garnish to the experience. The diner wears a napkin over their head, to hide themselves from the eyes of God in their moment of indulgent wickedness. The links between this and executions are so obvious that Trash Cuisine allows them to pass without comment, but that napkin adds a spine-chilling significance to Stafford-Smith’s recorded observation that American executions take place exclusively a night.
Devised with great inventiveness, performed with constant dynamism and argued with a ruthless integrity, Trash Cuisine’s few flaws are easily forgiven. It’s a stomach turning indictment of capital punishment that seems to make the eyes of God burn fiercer on the world.
On 25th August, Trash Cuisine will be streamed live on LiftFestival.com