Irish Food. A Play – Dublin Fringe Festival – Review
By Diana Perez Garcia
Performances – 15 – 18 September
Venue – Rustic Stone Restaurant
Words, no matter how artfully arranged, will never provoke the visceral reaction that food elicits. “This sandwich is just like the ones I used to have when I came back home from school when I was a child,” says a young woman sitting across from me at one of four dining tables arranged for the audience of Irish Food. A Play. in a private room in Rustic Stone. We have just been doled out the second course of the menu conceived by JP McMahon for the show, served between poetic lashings of food memory and lore.
The woman is holding a ham and cheese sandwich cut into a triangle wedge and her face momentarily beams with a memory taking her back to a childhood kitchen or front room. In my childhood in Spain, this same kind of sandwich was one of a number of exotic items the Famous Five would magically produce during one of their picnics as they solved some mystery about smugglers. Our ham tended to be salty and cured. Our cheese was hard and crumbly. Our bread was crunchy, never doughy. And my mother seldom mixed ham and cheese in the rolls she made for me. As a child I dreamed of one day having one of those sandwiches with lashings of ginger beer.
McMahon pairs the ham and cheese sandwiches with fried mushrooms (by almost unanimous consensus, delicious); oysters (silky and fresh); bacon and cabbage (stringy and slightly dry) and potato soup (with a musky taste strangely redolent of times gone by). The conversation falls in dribs and drabs around the table. At one point the text reminds us that the dinner table has always been a domestic stage for ritualised consumption and conversation.
I gulp an oyster down and the action is punctuated with a question on the greatest mystery surrounding Irish food; one that I hoped McMahon’s text would settle once and for all: why is it that fish and seafood are so unpopular in a country of islanders? (For the record: McMahon never answers that question, although he teasingly chooses to open proceedings with his actors removing a live lobster placed in the middle of the room.)
My dining companions sketch some possible explanations: salmon was the preserve of landlords and forbidden to the majority of the population, offers one of them; desperate people were reduced to eating ugly crustaceans during the famine, suggests another. The influence of the church with its insistence on meatless Fridays is added to the list of reasons. This resonates with Romana Testasecca’s smatterings of religious iconography across the room and McMahon’s references to the way religion shaped both the Irish psyche and table. This is hardly a groundbreaking revelation but it is delivered, like the rest of the text, with tremendous conviction and energy by its three players (Meg Healey, Clodagh Mooney Duggan and Tom Duffy.)
Irish Food. A Play. is intriguingly born and fashioned out of the answers to a questionnaire about “preconceptions of Ireland’s history with food” with which McMahon is gathering information for his PhD about food in performance and how it affects audiences. His proposition in this piece is simultaneously simple and unfathomable: that our individual and collective experience is reflected in our food consumption. His text tries to recreate this fragmented and irretrievable culinary past by distilling it into a ritualised litany revolving around food.
The conversations that emerge at the dinner table, although stripped of the forceful rhythm of his text, do as fine a job to prove his point about food and identity. To my right, a vegetarian is reduced to eating crisps, potato soup, seaweed and mushrooms. A diner across the table shares a devilled egg with me along with her memories of being a founding ex-member of the Dublin food co-op. She tells me she is disappointed at the damage petty squabbles have done to what was once a worthy and alternative organisation.
As the play unfolds, a variegated Irish food landscape emerges and with it the country’s attending experience of imperialism, colonialism and the domestic oppression of women. In his piece McMahon attempts to marry nostalgia and brutality. As a chef he must know how hard it is to successfully mix such disparate ingredients, so his attempt to combine them in this piece is admirable. The ensuing experience, like the food served, is at times, compelling and, at times, unpalatable.