Created by Chai Vivan & Scott Wings
30 June – 2 July, NOW Theatre, Sungai Besi
Review by Bilqis Hijjas
It’s always nice when the theatrical production pretending to be a pleasant dinner with friends actually turns out to be a pleasant dinner with friends. Then again, I don’t know if this is what Chai Vivan and Scott Wings really envisaged for their immersive theatre work Food Fight. But if you request your exclusive 30-person audience to show up in formal wear at the relatively unknown NOW Theatre, in the wilds of Sungai Besi, certainly the arty cognoscenti will come ready to eat, gossip and party!
With Food Fight, Malaysian choreographer Chai Vivan continues her exploration of food as something that arouses tension as well as appetites. When she was still a dance student at ASWARA, she made the Candy Crush-inspired work ‘Snack It!’ for the 2013 Dance Escalator project. She then went abroad to pursue a Masters in Choreographing Live Art at the University of Lincoln, but the topic of food remained, as it were, on the table. Her first work after her return was a solo for ASWARA dancer Jabar Laura, who devoured a watermelon on stage with unseemly gusto, flanked by video projections of wet pulsing organic matter which suggested innards but turned out to be fruit. This year, Vivan revisited the picnic theme with ‘Faux’ at Dancing in Place in March: a blend of deliberately saccharine styling and fast-paced physical bickering evoking the ghost of ‘Snack It!’
Food Fight is a logical extension of Vivan’s experiments, on a trail that leads further away from conventional dance, towards more interdisciplinary and participatory work. And with Australian physical performer and spoken word poet Scott Wings, Vivan has embarked on an important step in her career: a truly shared collaboration.
Vivan’s creative method emphasizes visual surfaces, whether the glossiness of biological membranes, or the impeccable styling of makeup, costumes and hair, or the grainy, hazy, pastel-box effect of the climax of her 2013 work ‘Gaia’. Scott Wings, with his shaggy hangdog demeanour, seems to be searching for a less stylized, more realistic, aesthetic: high on rueful laughs and low on whiz-bang set pieces. These approaches combined don’t always work, and although their characters’ conflicts are the central premise of Food Fight, Vivan and Scott’s aesthetic disjuncture makes for a rather rocky evening.
Over the course of the performance, the two collaborators, as hosts of a dinner party at which the audience are guests, order people about, contradict each other, and occasionally descend into full-scale wrestling. They make ambivalent references to missing family members (especially mothers, either bossy or passive aggressive) but nothing much develops out of this. More interesting are the various tasks assigned to the audience: serve your blindfolded partner mystery snacks, for instance, relay a message, Chinese-whispers-style, down the length of the table, or answer quiz questions correctly to win a drink. Yet even these have the pleasant, nonconfrontational air of ice-breakers at a baby shower, with guests patiently jollying along.
There are some entertaining moments, especially when Scott and Vivan roam the outskirts of the table pretending to be crocodiles, chasing a Vegemite sandwich which audience members dangle from a fishing pole. Later, Scott trains his selected ‘brother’ from the audience to perform a complex secret handshake – this involves pretending to munch on each other’s beating hearts. And a running gag about birthdays comes to a strangely piteous end: Scott with his face in a cake.
But for Malaysians (who, like hobbits, prefer more than three square meals a day) this all adds up to rather a long time without actually eating. When finally some KFC, longan and egg tarts land on the table, the audience gets stuck into the serious business of dining with something like relief, and barely a thought and some polite applause for their hosts. The query, “Would you like spicy or original recipe?” could be heard.
Not surprising for a recent and rapid collaboration in such unfamiliar territory, Food Fight suffered from some stilted dialogue, uneven pacing, and the usual challenges of blocked sightlines and inaudible lines which come from performing in unconventional formats. And for me, the most engaging part of the performance was the most obviously performative and the least verbal one. Beneath a dim stage light, Vivan slides furtively through a gap in the curtains, clutching a tray on which squat a few of the little cakes used for offerings at ancestor shrines. To the sound of a wailing violin, she sidles up behind her guests, muttering cryptic phrases. Her body, in its slinky cheongsam, is so curved it is almost C-shaped. The effect, coupled with Vivan’s immaculate makeup and chic bleached bob, is both sinister and suggestive, like something from a David Lynch movie. Ironic that the moment with the most obvious and conventional theatrical artifice – stage lights, musical accompaniment, and stylized physicality – struck the most powerful chord of the evening.
It feels like Scott and Vivan are still coming to terms with what makes the other tick, and also what works in what context. In September, Food Fight will travel to Australia, a country whose mainstream culture has such a different understanding of food, family and art that I wonder how one show can ever hope to satisfy two such different palates. But cooking, or hosting a dinner party, like producing a show, is something you can get better at. Given a bit more marinating and some gentle kneading, the ingredients of Food Fight may yet come together into something that gels.
Photos by Yunus Ismail, courtesy of Food Fight.