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You can't make a Hamlet without breaking eggs

Food is centre stage in our theatres – and it's a riot for the senses

Emily Jupp
Wednesday 12 December 2012 01:00 GMT
Towering achievements: Sam Bompas and Harry Parr
Towering achievements: Sam Bompas and Harry Parr (Chris Terry)

"Yám Sing!" The phrase, meaning "cheers" in Cantonese, echoes round the theatre at the Arts Depot in north London, as cast and audience drink a toast to the "happy couple" in the play. The beverage served is green tea, accompanied by small bowls of dim sum: little steamed dumplings in bite-size portions, rather like the composition of tonight's performance – a series of little playlets set in a Chinese restaurant.

"Dim sum is such a good food to share with audiences, because you get all different types, which matches the tone of the plays. Some are dark and strange, like duck feet, and some are light and straight – like prawn toast!" says Kumiko Mendl, who is the artistic director of Yellow Earth, a collective of British East Asian writers who put together the show, Dim Sum Nights. But food is also used in the play as a tool to introduce themes of Chinese culture to new audiences.

"Food is very much at the heart of culture. In Chinese culture, different foods have different symbolic meanings and will be eaten for different occasions. So in the wedding scene, for example, there were loads of courses. The suckling pig represents virginity and abalone means 'plentiful'."

Yellow River aren't the first group to use food to add an extra dimension to their work. Food architects Bompas and Parr make a living from combining theatricality with food. At this year's Brighton Fringe, they made participants wear white overalls before losing themselves in a cloudy mist made from gin and tonic. Theatre company Play with Your Food have built their entire concept around combining fine dining with theatre, and Hardeep Singh Kohli, the comedian and Celebrity MasterChef finalist, made his latest national tour all about curry. In Indian Takeaway, he orders a takeaway on stage, then prepares his own version, sharing recipe tips, anecdotes and stories of his shared Scottish and Indian heritage.

Scents, particularly the smell of food, can have a powerful impact on us, says Dr Peter Brennan, of the School of Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Bristol. "There is evidence that synthesising food odours has dramatic effects." He describes an experiment in old people's homes, where loss of appetite is common. A perfumer has synthesised realistic smells of food and put them in air diffusers in the rooms. Half an hour before lunchtime, the diffusers are activated. "There's an enormous influence. People are eating much more and people who don't normally even get out of their chair at lunchtime come over to the canteen and ask when the food will be ready."

Theatre group Curious's promenade performance On the Scent takes a more scientific approach to using the smell and taste of food. It began in 2003 with the aim of exploring connections between memory and smell. Actors cook popcorn and pork chops on stage to evoke a sense of place and audience members are offered chocolates while the performers talk about different scents and the memories associated with them. At one point, an actor selects a rose-flavoured chocolate, and biting into it, describes the taste: "Rose. Like flowers picked on Mothering Sunday, then forced into a cream centre".

"A smell can trigger emotions or memories. Some smells are calming smells. Some smells are naturally alarming – like smoke," says Dr Brennan. It certainly adds texture and interest to a performance, but Dr Brennan is dubious over how much emotion the scent of fried chicken or a steaming basket of dim sum can stir up. "It's a dogma that smell influences emotion. Part of the idea comes from the way the brain is wired up. Some animals use smell to communicate, but we have developed language and other senses, so those connections with smell are more directly linked to more primitive parts of the brain."

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