DOUBLE DISSECTION: GRIFFIN’S ‘MARY MACLANE’ & BELVOIR/FORCE MAJEURE’S ‘FOOD’

Firstly, sorry for my prolonged absence. Did you miss me? (Rhetorical)
It was not my first thought to combine these two plays but seeing them within 24 hours of each other, there are remarkable similarities (in my eyes) that have brought them together.
And so, in simplistic terms, today’s double dissection lesson is about the affect or difficulty of the art of breaking the fourth wall.
Let’s start with Griffin’s ‘The Story of Mary Maclane By Herself’. The play, written and performed by Bojana Novakovic with music written and performed by Tim Rogers explores the existentialist crisis of a young woman, Mary Maclane, and uses a series of monologues, interaction between Novakovic & Rogers, music, song, the occasional dance and relies on direct audience address to create a sense of spontaneity and playfulness.
Belvoir have combined forces with Force Majeure in their staging of ‘Food’, currently playing at Belvoir Downstairs. It is a co-directed production by Steve Rodgers (who also wrote the play) and Kate Champion. It explores two sisters, working in the family take-away restaurant, who create and recall painful and joyous memories and reinvent themselves, just as they reinvent their attitudes and experiences of and through food. It is a beautifully crafted performance that uses physical theatre, dance, song, monologues, technical elements, character interaction and direct audience address.
Both plays use very similar techniques, although content is varied, and yet ‘Food’ manages to convince us as audience to invest and connect with its characters in a much more sophisticated way than ‘Mary Maclane’.
‘Mary Maclane’ relies heavily on being able to convince you of the impromptu nature of action. At times it deliberately sets out to be stylised, like the opening, and this works fairly well. Rogers’ acts as ringmaster in introducing the subject of the play and setting up an expectation of the character of Mary Maclane and the style in which we will explore her life.
But the problem with sustaining this is that it starts to feel didactic after a while- the audience are being force fed the material and the actors are working so damned hard but unfortunately not always succeeding in engaging those watching it.
There are times the actors are genuinely interacting and bantering with the audience, latecomers being the obvious and fun target of Novakovic’s improvisation. We enjoy the comic tension of these moments. It is when they are trying to make it appear impromptu and it feels staged and rehearsed is when it falls short. These moments need to feel organic and natural. Reactions need to feel spontaneous, like a confident improvisation. Instead, at times it feels petulant and indulgent and moves into dangerous ground in trying to convince its audience to stay with them.
We know, of course, they are working from a script. But if the style is to make it feel a little stream of consciousness, improvised, impromptu…well, if the internal energy isn’t there, if the sense of playfulness is forced, it really feels tedious. And that, for me, was much of ‘Mary Maclane’. It was a well-rehearsed play that didn’t always capture the ability to project itself as a series of reactions to emotion, memory or desire.
I thought the writing was smarter than the performance. Maybe part of the problem was Novakovic’s choice to star in her own material. That’s a tough ask. Maybe director Tanya Goldberg didn’t quite succeed in bringing the material to life at all times because her cast were too invested in the process.
But kudos for the songs and music, they were the most enjoyable part of the show. Musicians Dan Whitton and Andy Baylor did succeed in finding the joy in play on stage, perhaps because they were liberated from any dialogue. I also loved Anna Cordingly’s design, particularly the costumes. If that coat worn by Mary Maclane doesn’t make an entrance in winter fashion week, I’ll be devastated.  
And the one part of the script I really enjoyed is when the play commented on its own ‘process’ when Novakovic stormed in with her rehearsal diaries and Rogers started reading from it. It’s just that there was a lack of consistency in sustaining these moments of play.
So here’s the thing about ‘Mary Maclane’. I think an audience of the under 25’s will really like this show. It’s got some clever writing. There are some moments of genuine audience interaction that works, it’s got live music, a bit of spectacle, movement and colour and most importantly, deals with the existentialist dilemma and a passing reference to the devil. That’s normally a good combination to keep the young happy. But for those of us older than that, the show will feel a bit forced and passé. But I will commend the attempt and theatrical concept, even if it left me bored at times.
As for Belvoir/Force Majeure’s ‘Food’, even though it uses many of the same techniques, there’s a whole different level of control and engagement. For a 90 minute show without interval, my attention never lapsed. There was nothing about this show I didn’t like.
From the opening beats of music and movement of Emma Jackson’s Nancy, I was entranced by the action and its deeper meaning- enhanced later through the characters’ soliloquies as they take us through their personal disconnection from their painful experiences and history.
The cast were exceptional. Jackson and Kate Box as her sister Elma and Fayssal Bazzi as kitchen hand and traveller Hakan showed how you sustain and convince the audience of the naturalness of your material when you are engaging directly with them. Hakan’s slide show, the characters jumps between conversations with each other, talking about themselves in the third person, heading out into the audience and making them part of the show, culminating in feeding us and passing out wine (is that not reason enough to come to this show) was artful.
This show felt completely organic (this is not a pun on the food, composted each night). I believed it and I believed them. Rodgers’ script was one of the best I’ve encountered from the local scene for some time. Its smart dialogue and moving monologues, weaved beautifully with the natural movement of Kate Champion’s direction and it managed to manipulate my emotions with seeming ease. I craved for a happy ending for them all. And that is a clever piece of theatre.
The design by Anna Tregloan created an environment that captured not only the complexity of a kitchen but also the containers of our memories and experiences all housed in a space that allows for the rhythm and practicalities of the play. Martin Langthorne’s lighting also complemented the mood and ideas of this play, occasionally shining memories on the pots hanging from the wall as stories unfolded, creating striking imagery.
There were so many clever layers to the design. Most of all, the sound design by Ekrem Mulayim was a masterpiece. Just as I lusted after the coat from ‘Mary Maclane’, Mulayim needs to sell his CD of ‘Food’ at the foyer. It’d be a best seller.
I know ‘Food’ and ‘Mary Maclane’ offer different endings and tone. But ‘Food’ succeeds in taking their audience on the journey with them whereas ‘Mary Maclane’ falters. It is the art of finding the internal energy as actor to deliver the material with belief and ease, it’s the light in the eyes, it is creating and maintaining a style in best exploring the ideas and dimensions of the characters and it is an understanding of how to convince the audience that this is the most natural expression of form.
And if you force it, you kill it.
There are things you’ll like about both shows but in how to keep your audience engaged and happy, especially when you’re going to include them in the show, ‘Food’ is the outright winner.

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1 comment

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Nova May 21, 2012 at 2:16 am

Food was so joyful. Which is an interesting word to come to after an hour and a half of sexual politics and family breakdowns.

Everything just came together in this production. Everyone was so comfortable with the material and I agreed, by the end I, and everyone else in the audience, was willing it to end well.

My only issue with it is that it left a lot on the shelf – particularly with the relationship between Hakan and Nancy, which Nancy may or may not have used to "please" Elma. That thread of the story just drifted off.

That said it is a minor quibble. I loved this one. The last couple of years has seen a couple of average Upstairs plays completed upstaged by the productions Downstairs. This is one of those.

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