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The Kitchen is about more than food, it’s a seduction of the soul
Roysten Abel is not your typical theatre director. There is a distinct sense of spiritualism about him, and an evident pride for his homeland where others often seek to internationalise themselves and shed their humble beginnings.
“My current work over the past eight or ten years has been shaped by my association with folk and traditional performers in India,” Abel tells Indian Link via phone from India. “You have an international sensibility because you’ve travelled, seen different places, but what’s driving me is the traditional performances of my home country.”
For his latest production, being staged as part of this summer’s Sydney Festival, Abel was inspired by his love of the Indian drum, the Mizhavu, and a visit to Jalaludin Rumi’s tomb in Konya, Turkey. There he was struck by Rumi’s ‘Kitchen’. Inside the vast chamber, the 13th century mystical Sufi poet and philosopher meditated and prayed alongside his followers, while food was cooked nearby in large vessels for all people in the hall to replenish themselves.
Abel says the visit ignited in him a sense of cooking going beyond the literal, taking place on various planes. “The experience stayed with me,” Abel explains. “I was at a point in time where I wanted to come up with a new production and this transpired into The Kitchen.”
“In many mythologies, including Hindu mythology, the body is a vessel, and it’s about how you care for your soul,” he explains. “How you ‘cook’ your soul is about how you live your life against all trials and tribulations.”
“It’s all to do with cooking and the pots,” Abel continues. “The basic stage set for the show is the philosophy of that kitchen. Multiple layers of cooking happen in that kitchen and that’s basically what happens in this show. The pots within a pot within a pot is reflected in that. Even the drums are like pots themselves. It’s about cooking as a metaphor for the evolution of the soul.”
For Abel, the cooking of the traditional Indian dish payasam in the production represents an act of meditative communion. “It is normal to have something sweet after a meditation,” he explains. “It is an activity where the communal is extended and it becomes more real when you taste something that’s been cooked in front of you.”
Each night during the performance, the actors and production team cook for around 1500-2000 people. In Sydney they will be unable to bring the ingredients with them from India due to customs regulations, so the production crew will go shopping, likely to Harris Park, to find their elements locally.
First drawn to theatre after taking part in plays during his school years, Abel’s family was concerned he wouldn’t be able to make a living out of theatre. “I decided I had to do something I enjoyed for the rest of my life, and not do something other people asked me to do.”
While studying at the National School of Drama in India, Abel met his wife, Mandakini Goswami, who stars in The Kitchen. This is the first time the pair have worked together in over 20 years. “When you’re working, you’re not husband and wife, you’re just actor and director,” Abel says. “She has to take on any criticisms I may give.”
The Kitchen is a wordless production, a metaphysical journey through a spiritual world of culinary rituals, relationships, and human connections. “Not having dialogue helps the audience go on their own tangent to explore and experience what they make out of it,” Abel explains. “It’s also a challenge to see what you can do without dialogue, to arrive at a whole new performance language with the actor and drummer.”
Despite having no musical background, Roysten Abel has a passionate affinity with the mizhavu, or Keralan kettle drums. “All my work has a lot of musical influence,” Abel says. “I arrange all the music, I make the choices. It’s just trial and error. Listening to what is being played, listening to yourself.”
For this production, Abel ‘collected’ solo drummers from across the south of India, “It’s a lot of work for the percussionists to come together and pound the same beat, to get into a certain structure.”
He maintains The Kitchen is still evolving. “I’m still working on it. It never stops. It’s about a mutual build-up of trust between the drummers, the actors and the director.”
Abel’s last production for the Sydney Festival in 2010, the Manganiyar Seduction, a Rajasthani folk music performance, received widespread acclaim. This time around, The Kitchen is set to once again bring Sydney audiences a unique brand of mystical romanticism. A husband and wife prepare traditional South Indian payasam to the beat of a mesmerising percussive composition played by 12 drummers arranged in vividly lit tiers inside a giant ‘pot’. The audience is induced into a trance-like meditation which reaches boiling point as the couple shares their creation with the audience, tempted by the sweet aromas wafting throughout the theatre.
Abel is not surprised by the overwhelming reactions to his work, though. “I have always felt, and strongly believed in, the potential of Indian traditional performances. And if you try to find a contemporary idiom for these performances – it can go a very long way.”