Allen Hall Theatre, University of Otago, Dunedin

06/07/2021 - 10/07/2021

Production Details

Talking House and The School of Performing Arts present an immersive theatre installation throughout Allen Hall Theatre, exploring and discussing the nature of food production, consumption and sustainability. Using verbatim material, this event promises to be both entertaining and challenging. Be prepared to be moved and to move while you encounter questions about food wealth and inequality, and who, how and where food is made, processed and consumed.

This project has developed from work we have undertaken in the field of verbatim theatre over the past 13 years – theatre created from the testimony of people to whom we have spoken about a range of subjects, including family violence and migration. More immediately, Struggling with Lentils builds on a series of experiments in which, working with composer Jeremy Mayall, film-maker Dan Inglis and dancer-choreographer Sofia Kalogeropoulou, we incorporated other artistic elements into our practice: music and soundscape, film and choreography. That project culminated in a workshop presentation, Super-Taster (2018).

Struggling with Lentils extends the explorations of Super-Taster in a number of ways – in relation to theatrical form as well as to the subject of food. It has been shaped by a set of fundamental questions that arose from the rich testimony that we gathered in conversations and interviews with a diverse range of generous participants, to whom we are extremely grateful. Those questions are: Who is at the table? And who is not? What do we consume, and how do we consume? How are we consumed?

The research and development of Struggling with Lentils has been funded by a University of Otago Research Grant, and its public showings have been made possible by a grant from the Dunedin City Council / Creative New Zealand Professional Theatre Fund.

We hope you find the experience curiously nutritious.

Hilary Halba, Simon O’Connor, Martyn Roberts & Stuart Young

Allen Hall Theatre, University of Otago, Dunedin
2 & 3 then 6-10 July 2021
+ 2pm matinees 3, 4 and 10 July
$25 waged
$15 concession
$10 school students
Door sales available


Your Hosts
Sara Georgie, Phil Grieve, Siale Tunoka

Brent Caldwell
Courtney Drummond
Amanda Faye Martin
Temple Flaws
Nicole Jenkins
Harrison Kennedy
Heleen du Plessis (cello)
Daisy Tait
Phil Vaughan

Writer-Curator-Directors:  Hilary Halba, Simon O’Connor & Stuart Young
Audio-visual Design:  Kerian Varaine
Production Design:  Martyn Roberts (with Simon O’Connor, Hilary Halba, Stuart Young)
Choreographer:  Sofia Kalogeropoulou
Production Manager:  Jeremy Anderson
Dramaturg:  Fiona Graham
Visual Artist:  Motoko Kikkawa
Operators & Crew:  Brent Caldwell, Amanda Fiveash, Harrison Kennedy & Tabitha Littlejohn
Graphic Design:  Inge Andrew
Poster Design:  Martyn Roberts
Marketing:  Karen Elliot
Box Office:  Beth Craigen, Jordan Wichman 

Theatre ,

Intriguing, illuminating; something to chew on

Review by Terry MacTavish 09th Jul 2021

Ah, the wicked tingle of mingling, the illicit pleasure of wantonly sharing food with strangers! The guilt I feel over relishing all this, while the rest of the covid world still quakes at the thought, is as nothing to the shame I feel when Struggling With Lentils also obliges us to confront our culpability as reckless consumers. “Who is at the table? And who is not?” demands this challenging piece of verbatim theatre. “What do we consume, and how?”

Not that Dunedin has been deprived of stimulating theatre. We’ve been treated to a wild Fringe and elegant Arts Festival, Globe and Arcade Theatres have been busy, the Playhouse kids have frolicked, and Ake Ake is celebrating Matariki on the sands of Aramoana. Just recently another brilliant Talking House production was presented at Toitu: Bittersweet, the story of Cadbury’s Chocolate Factory and its heart-breaking closure, as told by seven of its long-time women workers.

There is no doubt that Verbatim Theatre can really pack a punch. Talking House and its theatre allies have become exceedingly well-polished in the decade since I reviewed their ground-breaking Hush and Be-longing – interviewing subjects sensitively and shaping the scenes with subtle skill, while the professional actors and crew now manage with aplomb the complex technology required to reproduce the subjects’ actual words and tones.

Struggling With Lentils is however an even more ambitious undertaking.  Writer-curator-directors Hilary Halba, Simon O’Connor and Stuart Young have let loose all the Performing Arts disciplines on a topic that delves into social, political and environmental issues. Each has their own take on the universal subject of Food, and music, dance, film, poetry, technology and artworks seamlessly combine to surprise, delight, and hopefully disturb.  

I am impressed by the time, imagination and hard work clearly dedicated to this engaging immersive experience, enhanced by Martyn Roberts and Kerian Varaine on Production and AV Design.  Two whole floors of the Allen Hall Theatre complex are fascinatingly reshaped as nearly twenty performance or installation spaces, through which the audience wander at will, with just a few entertaining guides to keep us in some sort of order.

I choose to start in a bright simulated kitchen with the delicious ‘Food Show’, an irresistibly bouncy number choreographed by Sofia Kalogeropoulou and impeccably performed by three smartly dressed chefs (Nicole Jenkins, Temple Flaws and Daisy Tait) in a unique, charming blend of cooking and zippy dance, whipping up a tortellini recipe which they invite bemused audience members to complete.

This is a deceptively fun start to the journey – the mood changes as we blunder into an eerily-lit, white-draped room ominously labelled ‘Plenty of Phosphate’. Headphones dangle invitingly, tiny homes for voices either commending the virtues or warning of the dangers of a substance I am suspiciously aware is used for fertiliser. Probably bad, then.

I should spend more time here to find out for sure, and I notice the introverts in the audience latching onto the headphones to listen intently in their own wee bubbles, but I am more attracted to the characters and drift on to the next cubbyhole where a man is chatting cosily to us from a shabby leather armchair. Phil Vaughan is compelling as a person forced to rely on foodbanks, though as he tells us, ‘I’ve never been questioned or refused…they’re wonderful in there’.

I fear I am less wonderful, being one of those who hasn’t given much thought to what to put in foodbanks. Sometimes I donate cans of food I don’t like but figure will be good for the poor people. And yes, here comes The Title, as the unlucky chap tells us of his joy over an unexpected donation of a pork roast, confessing he has trouble thinking up ways to cook the endless tins of chickpeas and lentils. “I am struggling with lentils,” he sighs. Ouch.  And the screw is twisted when he tells us what he does when he can’t sleep for hunger.

A meander through a corridor decorated with children’s cute drawings of their notions of farms and farmers, hung above a shell-covered pathway between small wooden crates, a peep at Siale Tunoka on video talking longingly of the ‘Real Food’ of his home, and then suddenly we are confronted by a distressing display labelled ‘Flour and Bombs’, with photos and stories of the hideous circumstances under which families in war-torn countries must eat what food they have.

It is comforting to reach a snug sitting room, with rugs, easy chairs and patchwork cushions, where a smiling gentlewoman from Holland reads us the story she has written of her grandmother’s delectable syrup waffles, Stroopwafel. She lets us taste some, and they are indeed very good, and the lovely elderly lady with me is encouraged to tell of the dough mice with currant eyes that her own grandmother made specially for her.

No doubt as intended, all the patrons are beginning to chat with each other, and consult over the questionnaires we are given to make us acknowledge our own eating habits. When we reach the main theatre, to find it transformed to a gracious Banquet Hall, we naturally join others to help with the tragic task of separating wheat from bits of broken glass, common practice in countries where bombs shatter everything. A mellow cello plays beguilingly meanwhile, and my friend whose grandmother made mice, murmurs approvingly, “This is immersive, without being embarrassing.” Right.

There’s a video of the Professor of Sociology explaining the historical background, the First World’s ruthless exploitation of its colonies to grow only crops needed at Home, but my particular favourite is a manic turn in the foyer’s kitchen by Amanda Faye Martin as the perfect Stepford wife. Immaculate in 60s fashion, pearls and gloves, echoing the ads on the TV behind her, she eulogises frenetically over the miracle of plastic, while discarded plastic containers pile up around her feet.

A cup of good coffee and, strangers no more, we are summoned back to the Banquet Table, now presided over by a queenly Sara Georgie, where we can safely anticipate an ironic climax to what has been an intriguing and illuminating experience. Something to chew on, at least! (Just spit out the plastic afterwards…)


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