A few hours before attending Jamie Lewis’ interactive live performance, Saltwater, my brother and sister-in-law talk with me about their recent baby shower. Apparently, a number of work colleagues commented on the volume and style of the dishes available at what was, for us at least, a fairly typical Filipino party.
My sister-in-law asked, “What do white people eat at their parties?” We debated this for a short while – cheese platters? vol au vents? dips with vegetable sticks? – it was hard to pinpoint what constituted “typical Aussie party food”, and we felt silly for trying to do so. Surely, in contemporary, multicultural Australia, we are more than what we eat?
Yet, as Lian Low (then Prose Editor) said in her introduction to our dedicated Food edition: “Food is essential to our survival, it is nourishing, nurturing and pleasurable, but it can also be a way in to our remembered cultural identities.” When we ingest and then digest another culture’s food, we activate all of our senses. Saltwater takes this essential, sensorial quality of food and its shared experience as the departure point for an hour-long, meditative performance that blends story telling, cooking lesson and live art with purpose, humility and genuine warmth.
The work centres around the conceit of a jointly prepared meal. The gestures and constituent elements are simple – we wash our hands, we sit at a round table, we collectively pluck “the ugly bits” from bean sprouts, before Lewis herself finishes preparing a meal of curry, rice, sambal and vegetables. I won’t take away from the pleasure of the histories and provenance of the various dishes, but – suffice to say – the meal itself was more than satisfying enough to justify the ticket price, should that be your concern. I would suggest, however, that you take Lewis seriously when she asks you to moderate your sambal to your appetite for chilli.
As advertised, Lewis shares her experience of having married and migrated to Australia, returning to and reinventing recipes from her homeland of Singapore, sometimes with her mother’s remote assistance, sometimes with the hyper-charged reservoir of memory. When we are separated from those we love, we often attach like barnacles to those rocks that remain. We learn what it is that Lewis loves and longs for through a sequence of familiar gestures that are interspersed with structured, and somewhat more stagey, first-person stories.
The setting is simple, hip and beautiful, the performance style largely restrained and natural. There is no assault, or even great challenge, in the work – as can sometimes be the case in live art experiences that aim to be “immersive”. Instead, there is a feeling of welcome, a desire for closeness, the openness to exchange and the willingness to share. The form of the dinner table follows the intended function of bringing people together for engagement and communal experience in an understated but highly-effective way.
In some places, the more formal “stories”, while lovely, felt almost too crafted to summon the genuine magic of the work, which was felt most strongly in the quiet awkwardness of the arrival rituals, the tentative breaking of collective silence by the participants and the seemingly unscripted quality of the interstitial anecdotes. In those places, I felt a keen awareness and fresh attentiveness to the way that bodies within a space interact with each other and with a story and the story teller. It is clear that, as a performance-maker, Lewis takes great care and thought with her work. I would only encourage her to consider either driving further into the “character” of “Jamie”, whose family impressions and cheeky humour gave the structured elements of the work a warmth and vibrancy, to push the narrative to a more energetic conclusion – or to consider dispensing with the prepared script entirely.
My personal preference is for the latter. Although I have not been lucky enough to see Lewis’ previous works, I believe she would be more than able to work within a less-predictable format with alacrity. In the spaces opened by audience questions and exchange, Lewis brought people to unplanned gasps, warm disclosures and tenderness with her quirky humour, personal vernacular and gentle charisma.
Seats for Saltwater are limited. All deserve to be filled.
Booking details via Theatreworks
Date: 01 Jul 2015 – 12 Jul 2015
Time: various options – 3pm, 4pm, 5pm, 5.30pm, 7pm, 8.30pm
Price: $30 Full / $25 Conc [plus booking fee]
Saltwater / Letters Home Double Bill – purchase a ticket to both shows for only $50 full price or $40 concession!