‘What is the “Soup du jour?”’
‘That’s the soup of the day.’
‘Mmmmm, that sounds good. I’ll have that.’
– Lloyd Christmas, from the film Dumb and Dumber.
I am taking a girl out to a nice restaurant. Multiple certificates and awards hang in the window. The lights are dim, one wall is stacked from top to bottom with wine bottles as if in a library, and delicate lace curtains reach halfway up the windows and provide us with some privacy from passers-by on the street. Her name is Ayan Youssouf. She speaks English with a subtle accent. Her parents are from Djibouti, she speaks some Korean, she grew up in Germany and she now lives in Switzerland. Yet never has she lost her love of the food of her homeland: France.
The menu offers an enticing terrine to start, and a dacquoise for dessert will be hard to pass up. Wait staff are immaculately dressed. Apparently the cauliflower gratin is delicious as a side, and the entire meal can be rounded off nicely with a chunk of smooth Brie de meaux or sharp Roquefort cheese. If we cannot decide what to eat, we can trust the chef’s judgement and order the plat du jour. But we are not in France. We are in Dunedin, New Zealand.
In fact, we could be at a restaurant just about anywhere in the world. Because there is one feature of the hospitality industry which is hard to disprove in practice: French food sells. At a tearoom in Glasgow you could pick up a ham and cheese toasted sandwich for a pound, or for eight times the price you could sit down to a croque monsieur at a cafe just around the corner. In Riga, Latvia, where you can fill up on dumplings and stuffed cabbage for a few Euros, why not join the young people gathered at Cafe Paris and get half a croissant for the same price? For generations French cuisine has been seen as the most exquisite. French restaurants always attracted the greatest reputations and the largest bills. For the present generation, however, this has changed slightly. The reputation is still there. But there need not be any direct relationship to French cooking or restaurants. The product is enough. Putting a croissant up for sale is enough. People still make the association with quality – yet the quality, and I take Cafe Paris as an example, need not be there. French food is assumed to be the best, so if something appears French then it appears to be the best. There is seldom a need to prove it; people will buy it anyway.
Back to Ayan and our restaurant in Dunedin. Some of the other groups of diners are probably celebrating a special occasion. Bluff oysters are served au naturele. Local potatoes and New Zealand tasty cheese are used to make dauphinoise potatoes. When I spoke to the chef they were quick to assure me, almost aggressively, that they are not a French restaurant, nor do they try to be. Given the decor and the menu, this insistence was quite a surprise. However, it helps to elucidate what French food in some way has come to be: not always a deliberate marketing tool, but instead a market convention to which some establishments have to adhere in order to survive. The rest of the menu features wonderful Asian dishes, New Zealand specialties and experimental fusions. Yet to most people this is the closest thing to a ‘French’ restaurant in town. To most people, it is also one of the ‘best’ restaurants in town. Perhaps the two are subliminally linked. Maybe we, as customers, assume French food to be better because we have been told that it is. One thing seems certain – we are more willing to pay for food if it is French.
The couple who own this restaurant started with a dream of creating a place where people could get good, quick food in a casual environment. But, as one of them said to me while pointing through the curtained windows to people walking past on the street, ‘nine times out of ten those guys decide what you get to do.’ Good food costs money. Money to buy good produce, money to pay good chefs to prepare it. People will pay more for a croque monsieur than a toasted sandwich, or a plat du jour over a dish of the day. As always, money talks. And in the hospitality world it speaks French.
The most obvious indication of the relationship between French food and inflated prices are so-called ‘fine-dining’ establishments. For a professional chef to be ‘classically trained’ is effectively a synonym for being trained ‘in the French methods of bourgeois hotel restaurants in the late-nineteenth century.’ If you are a ‘chef’ you are really a chef de cuisine, or head of the kitchen. Some everyday words have never found a usable English equivalent to the French: restaurant, omelette, café and mayonnaise, to name a few. But these terms and practices are not confined to fine-dining or fancy restaurants. Pubs, cafés and fast-food chains use them. But they are not even confined to the food industry. We use them in our own cooking and eating. We use them in conversation. We see them everywhere. Yet knowing how this specific set of terms and practices came to dominate the food world remains as much a mystery to most people as does mastering the perfect omelette.
Rats and Aristocrats
‘Everything ends this way in France – everything. Weddings, christenings, duels, burials, swindlings, diplomatic affairs -everything is a pretext for a good dinner.’
– Jean Anouilh.
Auguste Escoffier. A name without which any history on the development of modern French cuisine is incomplete. To some, Escoffier is the deity of whom the high reputation of French cuisine was a creation. To others he is an arrogant egotist. The fact that he is a necessary inclusion in the history of modern French cuisine stems from neither of these. He is necessary because he is a hinge between what had come before him and what has come since. A balance between his influences and his influence.
The reputation of French food as the best in the world was born in the development of haute cuisine in France. Despite the historical importance of peasant food and local traditions on French cuisine, it was the ultra refinement of cuisine in aristocratic French kitchens, and overblown elegance of bourgeois restaurants, that defined what ‘French food’ came to mean to the world.
Two factors contributed massively to the development of haute cuisine. One was the role played by professional kitchens both before and after the French Revolution. The other was the codification of the techniques used in those kitchens. From the Middle Ages until the end of the eighteenth century, French chefs were confined to employment in private homes and kitchens of the aristocracy. However, this exclusive, restricted existence of the chef allowed for a uniform system of techniques to be refined, and certain dishes and procedures became standard throughout these upper-class households. Following the French Revolution, and the end of the ancient regime, everything changed. Chefs’ former employers were gone, and their traditional stage – aristocratic kitchens – had disappeared. They needed a new place to perform. By the middle of the nineteenth century, they had it.
Somewhere between the bloody years following 1789 and the pendulum-swinging social upheaval of the next century, a new elite emerged in France: the bourgeoisie. Boosted by industrialisation, the decline of the monarchy, increased material wealth and the growth of large commercial cities, bourgeois society blossomed in nineteenth century France. Especially in Paris, members of the bourgeoisie indulged an interest in sophisticated, urban culture. Part of that culture was fine food. In place of their aristocratic masters, who ate privately in their homes, chefs now obeyed the desires of wealthy citizens who frequented public restaurants.
In this new society the status of chefs changed. They were able to create their own menus, and strove throughout the century to establish the chef in society as both a bona fide professional and a true artist. This desire for professionalism saw a number of professional culinary academies set up in France at this time. In terms of art, Joseph Berchoux, a French poet who invented the word ‘gastronomy’ in its culinary context, insisted: ‘A poem is never worth a dinner.’
One menu from 1870 shows how French chefs adapted traditional techniques to suit the times. During the Siege of Paris by the Prussian army, Paris was in a state of turmoil, and cut off from the outside world. Yet some Parisian chefs refused to compromise the quality they strove for. They were not even perturbed by a lack of usual ingredients. Livestock could not enter the city. So chefs had to turn to meat already in the city. Horse meat was the most obvious and popular choice. Numbers of rats, cats and dogs from the street quickly dwindled. And, famously, the meaty animals of the city zoo and museum were too much for hungry Parisians to resist. Chez Voisin’s menu from Christmas Day 1870 presents such dishes as ‘clarified soup of elephant,’ ‘cat flanked by rats,’ and ‘roast camel English style,’ along with dessert, cheeses and two different services of vintage wines. One restaurateur apparently, after earning 600 francs in only thirty minutes from selling elephant meat he had resorted to, sold dishes made of horse meat as ‘elephant’ at exorbitant prices for the next two weeks.
Therefore it appears that the bourgeoisie had the curiosity and money to allow chefs to establish their profession as part of mainstream French society in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, however, although French chefs forged a new identity for themselves in society after the Revolution, one element from the old regime remained central to their work: the standard set of traditional rules, techniques and practices refined in the years of cooking for the aristocracy. One major reason for this was that these rules were written down.
The codification of cuisine classique in France kept the scope of haute cuisine very narrow. Once recipes, ingredients and techniques were written down, rather than transmitted orally, they were less susceptible to change and variation. Several books about food were written in France before the seventeenth century that had a notable influence on modern cuisine. However, it was not until 1651 that the first true epistle of haute cuisine appeared with Francois Pierre la Varenne’s Le Cuisinier françois. This book documented a change occurring in French cuisine over the seventeenth century: in peasant households, and from there into noble households, heavily spiced foods were replaced by more simple dishes flavoured with fresh local herbs and home-made sauces. In other words, the fundamental characteristics of modern French cuisine were laid. Over the 1700s cookbooks grew in popularity and number in France, but it was not until 1833 that the next landmark literary work appeared, by Marie-Antoine Carême. Carême cooked among the highest echelons of society, including for Napoleon, at the English court, and being headhunted by the Russian Tsar. His L’Art de la Cuisine Française put in writing many of the practices consolidated in traditional haute cuisine before the Revolution. The methods he codified, particularly those of preparing stocks and sauces, became gospel for the next generation of haute cuisine chefs. This is where Escoffier comes back into our story.
Escoffier did nothing new. Well, practically nothing. On one hand, he is a continuation of the line of celebrated masters who codified the traditions of haute cuisine. On the other, he is a revolutionary who simplified the classical French principles and made them adaptable and malleable to chefs around France, Europe and the world. Whichever way you look at it, Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire is undoubtedly the most influential book on French cuisine over the past century. Escoffier took a lot of his techniques straight from Carême, but managed to simplify and organise them more clearly. Maybe for this reason, or maybe simply because he was at the right place at the right time, it was Escoffier’s brand of cuisine classique which was to spread beyond France’s borders over the course of the twentieth century.
The New French Empire
‘How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?’
– Julia Child
James, in a white chef’s jacket in the kitchen of Dunedin cafe Nectar, explains that the sauce he is making for a chicken and leek pie is now a velouté because he has added stock to the roux, rather than milk, in which case it would have been a béchamel. He asks me if I can make a cartouche while he is stirring the sauce, so he can put it over the sauce and leave it without going bad while he talks to me. I begin to feel that the talk is hardly necessary. I have already seen what I came to find out. Within two minutes it already feels like I am in a play written by Auguste Escoffier. Cartouche, roux, béchamel, velouté. James has never been to France. Nectar is a very typical New Zealand cafe. So how did it come to this? How did France come to invade industrial kitchens of the western world? Food is something every single person on the planet needs. The French hardly invented it. Escoffier hardly invented it. But if anybody could lay claim to its patent, it is him.
After the publication of Escoffier’s book at the start of the twentieth century it became the textbook and bible of every serious haute-cuisine restaurant in Paris. In other words, it was the backbone of one of the most famous industries in the most fashionable city in the world. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Paris was unmatched by any city in the world for its cultural and social activity. Parisian boutiques and designers set the trends for European fashion. From the city’s Left Bank artists chopped between Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism and changed the course of modern art. On the other side of the river intellectuals and social activists argued over socialism, society and the future of the modern world. Such activity attracted all types of public figures, from Pablo Picasso to Ernest Hemingway. In short, Paris was the place to be.
Alongside this burgeoning culture Parisian restaurants and cafes thrived. The haute cuisine restaurants grew and grew in reputation and international stature. Typical Parisian cafe or bistro food became associated with the city’s culture and sophistication. The croissant, which had only appeared in Paris a century earlier from Budapest-via-Vienna, became as much a symbol of France as the Eiffel Tower. The Michelin Guide first appeared in 1900, and rose to prominence as its system of rating restaurants against one another forced chefs to adhere to its criteria in order to outdo one another in the eyes of the public. So, Paris was the centre of the world’s attention. But then the Second World War came. Post-war Paris was a much different place. Years of Nazi occupation, crippled industry, immense wartime casualties, and uncertainty over the future. It was time for French cuisine to move on.
Through several important figures, it did just that. French cuisine began to put down strong roots outside of France. In one way, therefore, this is the point at which ‘French cuisine’ lost its relevancy to France. This strand of French food stopped moving. Instead, it was exported from Paris as a time capsule, an anachronistic reflection of Escoffier and interwar Paris which was set in stone. Two names arguably have more to do with this exportation and globalisation of French cuisine than anybody. Roux and Child.
Julia Child moved to Paris in 1948 because her husband was stationed there with the United States Foreign Service. She instantly fell in love with French food, and went to train at the famous Cordon Bleu academy. She wished that America had such good food. Instead of championing a strong American food culture or creating a new American way of cooking, her mission explicitly became taking French cooking and planting it in America. The result was Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which fifty years after its publication is still one of the most popular cookbooks in the United States), an Emmy-winning television show, and an altered culinary landscape of America. In 1903 Escoffier claimed that “stock is everything in cooking, at least in French cooking.” Julia Child stated in 1961 that “the wonderful flavour of good French food is the result, more often than not, of the stock used.” Child’s book is nothing revolutionary. It is simply a further codification of the classical French methods. The Americans may have been first to the atomic bomb, but the French beat the United States to Hollandaise sauce by at least three-hundred years.
Michel and Albert Roux moved from France to the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Apparently disgusted by the poor quality of restaurant food, they opened Le Gavroche in London. Here they served classic French haute cuisine dishes, based on many of Escoffier’s principles and techniques. The restaurant, along with their second The Waterside Inn, soon became favourites of the Queen, and picked up three Michelin stars each. Those who have been trained under the Roux brothers include celebrity chefs and household names Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and James Martin. More than half of the chefs in Britain who have been awarded Michelin stars were trained either under Michel, Albert or their disciples. The Roux brothers have been called ‘the Beatles of gastronomy’ and credited with starting a food revolution in Great Britain.
Revolution? It seems more like an invasion. A conquest. The French Empire, almost two centuries after its demise, has reappeared in the guise of gastronomy. Pre-war Parisian chic has remained fashionable in post-war Britain and America. From there it has been carried around the world. McDonald’s. Hollywood. The Beatles. Coca-Cola. Apple. David Beckham. Globalisation has pushed Anglo-American society to most corners of the world. In Tokyo it is no surprise to see a local youth wearing a Rolling Stones tee-shirt. Just like it is no surprise to find a croissant at a bakery in Mexico City or on a street corner in Delhi. Globalisation has tended to mean that if something is popular in London or New York, chances are it will become popular in Auckland, Dubai or Hong Kong. Perhaps the global obsession with the image of French cuisine is down to Britain and the United States, rather than France. Since the end of the Second World War, ‘French cuisine’ has become less and less French. This begs the question: what has France been doing since Britain and the United States ran away with her old cuisine?
A Fresh Taste
‘I cannot prevent the French from being French.’
– Charles de Gaulle.
The supermarket feels like a supermarket. Rows of tinned food, dried pasta, soft drinks. Kids and the irritating screech of a sterile floor. Selma explains that she just has to buy some cheese, wine and tomatoes. After ten minutes in the cheese aisle we leave with a small mould-covered wheel of goats’ cheese, or chèvre.
Selma’s parents moved to France from Morocco two years before she was born. She moved to Paris with her mother and twin sister, Kenza, after their father died when they were three years old. Selma is currently completing a PhD in Primatology at the grandiose Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in the centre of Paris. The sisters share an apartment on a heavily trafficked road beside the Seine in Charenton-le-Pont. There is a distant view of the Eiffel Tower largely obscured by a concrete housing block. As Selma unpacks the groceries she apologises in her sweet, richly French voice that Kenza is not here for the dinner party.
‘I am really sorry, because you say you like French food, and she is really the expert’ – Kenza runs occasional French cooking classes for tourists at their apartment – ‘I am no expert.’
‘That’s okay, you don’t have to be,’ I assure her, ‘you just have to be French.’ She smiles.
After this I spent the afternoon with Selma in the kitchen. She casually explained the dinner to me as we worked. The centrepiece of it was a chicken and apricot tagine, cooked in her mother’s old earthenware tagine which she brought over from Morocco. To go with it there would be tomatoes à la Provence, with their seeds removed ‘because it helps with, um,’ Selma pauses as she rubs her stomach to jog her memory, ‘the digestion.’ Underneath will be couscous with garlic, thyme and lemon. Variations of fried potatoes with parsley are found all over France, and ‘in the southwest they use duck fat to fry them.’ The final condiment was an aubergine caviar which Selma prefers when it is infused with a special mix of Moroccan spices that her mother taught her. Around 5pm she opened two bottles of wine to breathe.
Of course, not all restaurants in France adhere to the haute cuisine traditions. There have been numerous periods where chefs have attempted to distance themselves from traditions and advocate nouvelle cuisine within the haute cuisine system. Albert Roux claimed to be doing this, and at the end of the nineteenth century the term was often applied to Escoffier’s cooking. However, most of the time these ‘breaks’ with the past have ended up being assimilated back into the canon of classical haute cuisine. However, there have been some more genuine attempts to change the stuffy traditional system.
Perhaps the best example of people consciously trying to alter their archaic food identity in contemporary France is Le Fooding. This movement is based on a French restaurant guide which appeared in 2000 to rival the Michelin Guide. Its name comes from a mix of two English words – “food” and “feeling.” As this suggests, the philosophy of the movement is to feel more attached to food. Rather than enjoying the same classic that bourgeois socialites ate in the nineteenth century, advocates of Le Fooding want the food we eat to reflect our own time. Alexandre Cammas, who co-founded the guide, states that ‘the classic French cuisine was dying. Everyone knew it outside of France, but it had to be said within. And it had to be said with joy—not as something to mourn but as something to celebrate, the beginning of a new taste.’ Exponents of Le Fooding want restaurants and menus to change as fast as our daily lives do, and to embrace whatever influences we are exposed to, not just the influences of the past. The movement has grown steadily and may be starting to change things. But some people have opted for the less stressful approach of simply running away from the old system altogether.
“Baptiste” was born near Versailles, just outside Paris. From the age of fifteen he spent twenty years completing chef and pastry chef apprenticeships and working in Michelin-starred kitchens. Then he got out. ‘It is not healthy. It is all about what is on the plate, not how it got there.’ He moved with his young family to New Zealand. After being disgusted by the poor quality and amount of processed food while working at supposedly the ‘best French pastry shop in Auckland,’ he turned away from food completely. Within five years he had gravitated back towards it, in the form of a small crêpe-making venture which turned into a full-time occupation.
‘I enjoy it because the people can feel the love that I put into the food, they can watch me make it and I can see them enjoy it.’
His menu is in English and he hardly seems to be using the French factor as a marketing tool. He also grows all his own salad greens at his home, makes every sauce at home, uses organic and free-range eggs and ham, and cheese from local suppliers.
‘Really? Wow, how come you do not advertise that information?’
He cracked a small smile, laid his hands flat on the table and slowed his voice down as he replied: ‘I want the food to say that to people. If the food says it, then I do not need to.’
After dinner, Ayan proposed taking our drinks to the seats outside the restaurant to have a cigarette. Reading over the dessert menu, I said ‘I wonder if they make a “real” dacquoise, you should get one and be the judge.’ Upon hearing this, Ayan laughed, lit a cigarette, swung her legs back under the table, leaned slightly forward, and began to tell me about an episode she had recently experienced in Auckland.
At a very popular French cafe and bakery in Mt. Eden she asked the chef, out of curiosity, why they did not sell vanilla éclairs. She shifted slightly closer to me, and raised both her hands in order to emphasize the next part of her story: ‘the chef went crazy! He began to complain with frustration about why he cannot sell genuine French food to New Zealanders.’ He used to buy these rich, 70% cocoa chocolate bars to make his pain au chocolat, but people complained that there was no real chocolate in them. ‘So to adapt to the market, he had to put bars made from Fonterra – which do not contain chocolate at all, but mostly sugar!’ Ayan smiled, pulled out another cigarette from its pack and held it, unlit, in her fingers, as she finished her story: ‘once he did this people started to compliment him about the rich flavour of cocoa in there!’
After telling her this the chef ushered Ayan out to the kitchen, sat her down and, ‘relieved by my empathy,’ made her an éclair à la vanille from scratch. ‘But it was a kiwi one, with chocolate glazing on top. Delicious. You do not get those in France!’
When a Hollandaise sauce splits, most people throw it away and start again. But it is possible to re-emulsify it by carefully adding drops of boiling water and whisking. It may not be as rich, but it will still be good. To some people it may even taste better.
Book Review: Crossfire – A Litany For Survival
Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you
LGBTQ poet and spoken-word artist Staceyann Chin is a powerhouse of an artist. (Exhibits A, B, and C: Her mesmerizing Def Poetry Jam performance of If Only Out of Vanity.” Her essay “Paradise of Lies,” published in the New York Times. And her hit play “MotherStruck,” set to soon work its way through the festival circuit as a series. Need we say more?) Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you. She is a rare talent that can captivate you in an instant — both by the political gravity of the subjects she so fearlessly and intelligently dissects and her sharp, mesmerizing, and sometimes hysterical turns of phrase. Her “snap-elastic words” can leave anyone who’s ever written for a living marveling (and wishing they had come up with them first).
This same fire is seen throughout Crossfire: A Litany for Survival, Chin’s first full-length collection of poems. Weaving adeptly between verses about the intersection of love, sex, race, gender, feminism, trauma, sexuality, queerness, motherhood, oppression, and so much more, Crossfire is a foot-on-the-gas-pedal kind of eye-opening, from start to finish.
In “Tsunami Rising,” she writes of the “weeping white women” who stood behind Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement only once a rich white actress co-opted it — a heartbreaking address dripping with explanation and patience we don’t deserve, and a tired, frustrated anger that we do.
“We are unable to process our pain with you,” she writes, “Because we are exhausted from centuries/of holding you and your children.”
In “Zuri-Siale Samanaya” — named for her daughter, with whom she often records “Living Room Protests” — Chin reflects beautifully on raising a child who is both following in her activist footsteps but coming into her own as an individual:
I can hardly wait
to hear your voice
I expect us to rumble
to create generational bruises that will have to be survived
In “Raise the Roof,” Chin’s worries that this power will not be enough to carry her daughter safely through a world intent on silencing the voices of Black women are heartbreaking.
Every day I have to drown my fears
for my child/born Black and a girl in a country
in which her safety does not matter
to anyone with power
Among the book’s other standout gems are a reflection on 9/11 titled “September in New York” and a hilarious and incisive retort to the misogynist who harassed her on Twitter (aptly titled “Tweet This Motherfucker”). But really, there is no plateau in Chin’s collection of poems. Each page of Crossfire: A Litany For Survival is fire, soul, and just damn good writing.
When artists like Chin bare their souls to put the revolution to paper, it’s up to us to truly listen.
by Staceyann Chin
Crossfire: A Litany For Survival will be published as a paperback original on October 1, 2019 by Haymarket Books.
A Wilderness of Queer Theorists? A Review of Titus Andronicus
The great themes of Titus Andronicus all remain and hold our attention, as ever.
In Cormac McCarthy’s masterly novel Blood Meridian, the main antagonist, the Judge, has some dispiriting reflections on the human condition and its predetermined and inflexible capacity for barbarism:
“It makes no difference what men think of war . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”
This bleak vision of the American West and its new and old inhabitants invites comparison with Shakespeare’s Rome, “a wilderness of tigers” as Titus Andronicus calls it. His military victory over the Goths has left twenty-one of his sons dead, and now, as ever, another war awaits him: a family struggle of revenge against Tamora, her children, and those who would rule Rome.
There are some scenes in McCarthy’s novel that defy retelling or summary. Words like violent and terrifying come to seem pallid and banal when set against the depravity and real horror of McCarthy’s world. Similarly, the practitioners of war in Shakespeare’s first tragedy treat us to decapitation, filicide, dismemberment, and cannibalism. It’s difficult even to imagine Blood Meridian being filmed or staged, and directors taking on Titus Andronicus have often felt the same. A particularly gory 2014 production at the Globe Theatre in London left a few audience members collapsing and vomiting.
While Blood Meridian is undoubtedly McCarthy’s masterpiece, Shakespeare’s tragedy has almost always been considered a shameful aberration, undeserving of mention in the same breath as Hamlet or Macbeth. The scholar Harold Bloom went so far as to wish that this “poetic atrocity” had never been written in the first place. Interestingly, many modern viewers, occasionally wiser than verbose academics, have finally come to agree with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience, who bloody well loved it. Their hobbies, it must be noted, also included attending public hangings, so they weren’t exactly the squeamish types. Nor are we, I suppose, accustomed as we are to the daily brutality served up on TV, social media, and the news.
Can Titus Andronicus be rescued from neglect and disfavour? Bell Shakespeare’s production at the Sydney Opera House, in the hands of director Adena Jacobs, has made an audacious attempt to do so.
Jacobs cleverly and helpfully divides the play into eight chapters, each with its own title and focus on a particular character. The first, in which we are immediately transfixed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths as Titus, adds to the already high body count: Titus murders Tamora’s son in vengeance and knocks off another one of his own in a fit of rage. His daughter Lavinia becomes the marital plaything of the men around her, and in Chapter 2, The Forest. A Snuff Film, we are forced to imagine rather than witness her gruesome rape and the removal of her tongue and hands; in this way, her attackers, Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius, can remain unidentified.
Jacobs’s decision to restrain the depiction of violence is a striking and effective one. The silence in the opening seconds of this scene, in which Lavinia’s helplessness is met by Aaron the Moor’s pitiless stare, is more confronting and frightening than anything else in the play. Jayna Patel as Lavinia is impressive if underused, and Tariro Mavondo, with her purple hair and ever-present sinister allure, captivates as the play’s most interesting character Aaron, the lover of Tamora and the father of her bastard child. His immorality and villainy are splendidly contained in the great line, “If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul.”
Jacobs’s central focus is on the human body: the real physical wounds it can carry, and the penchant for violence it recreates, even across generations. A camera onstage records closeup shots of the characters’ bodily lacerations and then projects them onto the back wall. This has a startling effect, especially when combined with the eerie and constant sound effects.
The weakness in the play is the same one that afflicts most modern art and literature, often fatally: an obsession with identity politics and the importation of once recondite ideas from the academy into the mainstream.
In the show notes, and I tried to suppress an eye-roll as I read this, Jacobs tells us that her production “queers and re-dreams Shakespeare’s play”, and then she bangs on for a bit about the patriarchy.
Given the overall androgyny of the characters’ appearance and the gender-bending of the cast choices, such themes are always lurking about. It never irks that much, really, especially if the performances are truly excellent. There are only a few scenes, however, when things start to get muddled, to put it mildly. There’s the birth scene, in which Queen Tamora’s baby is delivered via an artificial womb strapped to the father, Aaron, played by a woman. This wasn’t quite as cringey as the Clown’s campy and incongruous striptease, a real exercise in pointlessness.
I failed to see the force of all this ‘queering’; it doesn’t serve to question or play with gender so much as abolish it. That’s another kind of nihilism, by the way, but not one the creators seem very interested in. Oh well. Score one against the cisheteropatriarchy, as the kids call it.
If we are to “queer” great literature, as many artists of our moment would demand of us, it’s amusing to remember an old-fashioned meaning of that verb: to spoil or to ruin the success of something. The intrusion of wokeness into art has made a real stab at this: the removal of aesthetic criteria in favor of political point-scoring for minorities; and the replacement of universal themes with increasingly identitarian ones.
To truly achieve this, however, would be to despoil Shakespeare of all he has. Even the most earnest production couldn’t do that. The great themes of Titus Andronicus – political and family disintegration, the forever war, our return to barbarism – all remain and hold our attention, as ever. This isn’t a fair fight, come to think of it: the queer theorists never had a chance.
Bell Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is playing at the Sydney Opera House until Sunday 22 September 2019.