The Poor Kitchen – Nostalgia and the power of observational blindness. (Theatre Review)
The Poor Kitchen
Old 505 Theatre, now at 5 Eliza Newtown, 2-6 February
At the time of publishing this review, the run is complete. For more info and possibly other performances, pop in here.
It is the sluggish habit of most countries to use nostalgia to evoke a naivete that reduces our engagement with the present. Nostalgia usually evokes a time or place that is lost or is one with which we no longer identify, but it always manages to reduce the subject to an object, so what we pretend to examine is small and contained. Nostalgia can be a fascination with watching itself, a watching that reduces us to the wonders of childhood. The Poor Kitchen is set in Italy, a country for which nostalgia is a kind of currency, particularly when exemplified in feel-good literature of the past couple of decades such as Under the Tuscan Sun or A Year in Provence. When Vittorio, Anna and Carlo try to trick Elle into leaving them the farm, the device they first call upon is Italian provincial nostalgia; a claim for the beauty of The Simple Life despite them never having experienced this themselves. The Simple Life lives in biscotti, pasta, the charming chaos of an erratic police force and the politesse of thieves.
But surely the primary purpose of nostalgia is to evoke a powerful fascination that works to reduce the hostility or traumatic impact of the gaze? Nostalgia tricks us into thinking we are remembering something, when we are really trying to avoid something. It binds us into imagining we are not being watched back, that we are engaging in a functional observation that creates in us a transcendent authority. We gift ourselves the delusion that we are penetrating something out of time, unobserved by what is going on around us. We are separate from ‘the real’ and, like Gods, observing with the imagined advantage of future knowledge or abstract wisdom. In this way, nostalgia is more like plastering a badge, or small cover over the image, country, time or place we are observing, in order to feel transcendent and superior to the moment and to protect ourselves from engaging with the real. There are many pleasures to be had in Daniela Giorgi’s The Poor Kitchen, but above all of them, is her superb ability to present nostalgia through the reductionist presence of gimcrack, while equally drawing to the surface the direct horror associated with the reduced object. In The Poor Kitchen, it is a table that evokes both the rustic beauty of a pined for Italy that never was, and the horrible familial abuse that pervades and infects every characters engagement with the real.
The Poor Kitchen, then becomes a brilliant piece of writing about the constant battle for perspective between a nostalgic longing and a horrific subsumed real that is causing a spiraling endlessness of abuse born of self-protection. Giorgi is no anemic moraliser, demanding a permanent engagement with a certain version of the truth. Rather, she is a frustrated inheritor, dominated and liberated together by the inner civil war our familial history imposes upon us, the suspect nature of our own gaze, and the beauty and joy of living a history exemplified through traditional practises. None of Giorgi’s characters are perfect, none represent the answer or the right way, and yet all are forgiven by her insightful, generous pen. Everything is embraced in the present, and nostalgia seen for its refusal of that very disturbing beauty.
Director Paul Gilchrist enhances these statements through his juxtaposition of enormous movement against the smallness of shame and guilt. One character for whom the frustration looms large even walks herself out of the narrative at one point, her frustration is so palpable. This stands against the plays introduction that dwells on what it isn’t, that boisterous beauty of nostalgic Italy; fine boned dazzling women baking and speaking with their hands and unbearably beautiful men flexing their muscles and stalking females as if they were prey. When key characters come to a realisation of their past, movement has virtually ceased, lighting takes over, and we stare mesmerised into the soft clarity of the shocking image of their words. Giorgi has written clever devices into the play (the use of accents is marvellous) and Gilchrist enhances all of these witticisms with his intimate knowledge of the play, but also his own experience of its message.
Another of the pleasures in The Poor Kitchen is the superb casting of its roles. Cast members never fall out of place, and instantly invoke the writers point in their physical image and their directed movement. Characterisation is strong in The Poor Kitchen, their image projecting both an Italy we long for and an Italy that is frustratingly complicated by its own enormous history. From the fine boned beauty of Elle (Katrina Rautenberg) who looks like she has shed her boistrousness growing up Italian in another country, through to the classical allure of Guilia (Samantha Meisner), Anna (Randa Sayed) and Carlo (Benjamin Winckle) immersed in a renaissance style history. It all comes down to Vittorio (Mark Langham) to be both the objectified body of the lived Italian experience with all its contrasts and the mind confused by the difficulties of being a longed for Italy and the real Italy. Each cast member successfully embodies both their objectified nature and their individual truth.
The crew behind Gilchrist (including Daniela Giorgi who not only wrote The Poor Kitchen but produces this production of it) work in well with this notion of object as symbol from Rebecca Mills’ simple yet evocative set and costume, through to Tom Massey’s elegant sound design. Liam O’Keefe’s lighting takes a large directorial role and successfully navigates the audience through the complicated journey between past and present seamlessly. All this makes The Poor Kitchen a remarkable effort that is typically one of the all-too-swiftly passing brilliant indie plays Sydney claims on a regular basis.
At the time of publishing this review, The Poor Kitchen has completed its far too short run. However Subtlenuance are often called upon to repeat their understated plays and it is likely The Poor Kitchen will be back. When it is, make sure you don’t miss it.