“Food” by Geoff Sobelle at the Edinburgh International Festival

Maggie Rose in Edinburgh
9 August 2023

Geoff Sobelle’s “Food” is being performed at the Studio in Potter’s Row.

In a programme note this performance artist and director asks some fundamental questions about our survival and the future of the planet: “Why do we eat what we eat? Where does it come from? Do we need what we eat? Do we eat what we need?”

At the opening, Sobelle, a Puck-like figure, continually darts around the playing space, organizing the audience in two groups; the first, sits at a neatly-laid dinner table above which hangs a majestic chandelier.

Meanwhile, the second group observes this action from a raked auditorium. In the opening scene, Sobelle plays a waiter who interacts with the diners offering them food and drinks, titillating their senses, whispering instructions to them and giving them lines to read.

Sometimes he behaves according to the norms of common etiquette, at other times he subverts the rules so creating absurdist situations. He gives some diners lots of wine while others none at all; he serves a dish of beaten raw egg to one diner, and a fish which continues to flap around on its plate to another. The result is emotions that vary from amusement to disgust among audience members.

After this, he abruptly switches role, silently gorging himself on huge amounts of food. He started his career as a magician and his technical ability here allows him to give the impression of stuffing a whole stick of celery and a carrot into his mouth, defiantly washed down by three bottles of red wine.

Once one has begun thinking that this is first-rate slapstick and little else, Sobelle gives the cloth, plates and cutlery a mighty tug, sending them hurtling off the table onto the floor to reveal a desolate, earthy plain.

Theatrical illusion once again comes to his assistance in order to conjure up a radically different atmosphere; wheat begins to spring up rapidly while Sobelle now turned farmer, pulls tiny furry animals out of the earth, positioning them in what becomes a kind of installation.

The story of humanity’s shift to the industrialization and mass production of food is about to carry us into the present day: our farmer-turned-builder-turned-entrepreneur sets about positioning miniature multi-storey buildings in the landscape. The show, a mix of superb mime and sublime clowning, with only a sprinkling of words, offers a graphic picture of the story of food and our different and changing attitudes towards it, reaching out to us emotionally and allowing us to draw our own conclusions.

It must be said that unfortunately the audience’s experience was very different, according to where you were seated; ‘the diners’ enjoying a multi-sensorial immersive experience that is denied to the others.