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This is not a cooking programme. This is cooking as a metaphor for life itself. The Indian director Roysten Abel serves up a ritual fusion of sight, sound, smell and taste, in search of the perfect balance. On stage a drama without words unfolds between a husband and wife who are preparing a payasam, a traditional Indian dessert, in large pots. Behind them twelve drummers are slowly revealed, playing the mizhavu, a traditional barrel-shaped drum from the South-Indian region of Kerala. The surging sounds from the drums, the beautifully lit spectacle on stage and the spreading fragrances of the food combine as in a trance inducing meditation to reach a boiling point delighting all the senses, including taste, as the audience is invited to share the payasam afterwards.
The Indian theatre director Roysten Abel returns to the Holland Festival with his latest production entitled The Kitchen, a unique mix of music and cuisine. The last time Abel featured at the festival was in 2009, with his performance The Manganiyar Seduction, which was loved by the public and press alike. The performance featured 43 manganiyars, Rajashthan folk musicians, performing their music on a set reminding one of a mix between the Amsterdam red light district and an advent calendar. In The Kitchen Abel has once more chosen for an unusual cast: 12 mizhavu drummers from Kerala, Abel's home province, share the stage with two Indian actors cooking a meal in the foreground. Just as in The Manganiyar Seduction, Abel uses folk music traditions to create a contemporary performance.
The idea for The Kitchen came to Abel a few years ago when he visited the grave of the thirteenth century Sufi poet Rumi, a popular pilgrimage destinatio in the Turkish town of Konya. What he saw when he visited was a melting pot of meditation, dance and cuisine – near the place where Rumi had worshipped and meditated with his followers, there was a kitchen where meals were prepared for those waiting. The cooking was, in Abel's view, taking place on different levels: as well as the preparation of the food, there was also a preparation of the soul and the 'cosmic cooking' by the Sufis. As he left Konya, Abel had all the ingredients he needed for his new performance.
The stage in The Kitchen is dominated by an extraordinary structure in the shape of a huge mizhavu drum, on which the drummers are seated on different tiers. A big copper drum played by the hands, the mizhav or mizhavu is used as an accompanying instrument in the traditional performance arts of kutiyattam (theatre) and kuttu (dance) in the Indian region of Kerala. A tradition which is said to go back two thousand years, kutiyattam was added to the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001. Kutiyattaam and kuttu are performed in the context of temple rituals by Nangyaramma, women of the maternal line of the Hindu Ambalavasi Nambiar caste. Legend has it that the mizhavu drums were a gift from the gods and therefore are deemed holy. Playing a similar role to that in the actual temple rituals, the drummers in The Kitchen perform the acoustic accompaniment to a drama being played out in the foreground, their rhythms inducing a trance-like state.
Although The Kitchen is carried by two actors, Abel is adamant it's not a play, but rather a work of theatre in the broadest sense of the word, as there is no dialogue and the staging is largely static, apart from the movements which are part of the drumming and the cooking. The actors play a married but estranged couple who gradually, without words, are reconciled whilst preparing their paal payasam (Indian rice pudding). The meaning is clear: how they relate to one another and to the outside world is also a way of 'cooking'. Being present while their personal problems are played out in the privacy of their kitchen puts the public in a somewhat uncomfortable, voyeuristic position. The fourth wall is completely absent, the audience is part of the performance – literally, as at the end the couple invite everybody in the audience to come and taste their freshly cooked paal payasam.
An enthusiastic critic of the The Hindu newspaper remarked after the premiere that no description could possibly do justice to the production: 'It's something one has to experience – just watching is not enough. It's a journey one undertakes, as an individual and as a part of the collective.'
Born in Kerala in the South of India, the director Roysten Abel has over the last ten years developed a very special style of music theatre. Initially focusing on a career in commerce, at the insistence of his parents, it didn't look like Abel would end up in the theatre; but after dropping out of business colleges twice, he enrolled in drama school. Having graduated from the National School of Drama in 1994, he went on to apprentice at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London that same year. In 1995, he returned to his home country, where he founded the Indian Shakespeare Company, initially producing mainly straight classical theatre. The turning point came with his first original work, Othello, a play in black and white (1999), which marked his international breakthrough and has since toured around the world, including at Amsterdam's Royal Tropical Institute in 2008. After his first international success, Abel went on to create performances featuring out of work street performers, such as magicians, acrobats, puppeteers and musicians, an approach which didn't go unnoticed, especially in Italy, where he was invited to conceive and direct a play on Fellini in Rimini, the home town of the great Italian director. Recently, Abel has been giving more and more prevalence to the role of music in his theatre productions, as in the use of snake charmers playing their pungi in A Hundred Charmers; working with Manganiyar musicians from the North of India in The Manganiyar Seduction (featured at the Holland Festival in 2009); and in The Kitchen, for which he collaborates with musicians from his home region of Kerala. Abel is currently involved in setting up an International Centre for Contemporary Traditional Performances in Jaisalmer, which should be ready by 2015.
- Roysten Abel
- set design
- Neeraj Sahay
- light design
- Roysten Abel
- sound engineering
- Subraamnian Manoharan
- Mandakini Goswami
- assistant director
- Dinesh Yadav
- mizhav players
- Kalamandalam Rajeev, Kalamandalam Hari Haran, Kalamandalam Narayanan Nambiar, Kalamandalam Dhanaraj, Kalamandalam Ratheesh Bhas, Kalamandalam Ammannoor Ravikumar, Kalamandalam Vineesh, Kalamandalam Jayaraj, Kalamandalam Ezhikode Vineeth, Namboodhiri Kalamandalam Sajith Vijayan, Kalamandalam Manikandan, Kalamandalam Saji Kumar
- Can & Abel Theatres, Roysten Abel
- Holland Festival, Sydney Festival, Auckland Festival
‘It’s the sort of escapist theatre that takes you back home, instead of further away from it …’The Hindu